Illya Nikolayevich Kuryakin had been dying for days.
He had lost track of the hours that he had lain on his own, waiting for death. For a long time he had known that he was the only living thing left in the world, and he would not be left much longer. His stomach cramped on its emptiness. He could barely move his arms and legs. His head had been banded with pain forever. Even opening his eyes was an effort almost beyond him. It had taken his last resources of strength to stagger out here in an attempt to alleviate the pain.
In the early stages of his illness he had wondered if it would be easier to just set up home in the bathroom, since he seemed to be spending most of his time in there, but later, as his body emptied of everything and the diarrhoea eased off, leaving just the vomiting to deal with, he had rediscovered the delight of his bed. Now he was back in the old, familiar space for a different reason. He had knelt on the floor with his head on the cool enamelled side of the bath as he filled it, lapping water he caught in the palm of his hand from the cold tap, feeling it sink into the tissues of his parched mouth. And as soon as the water had been deep enough he had staggered his body over the edge which seemed so high and so hard, and sunk neck deep into the water. Slowly the heat had helped to ease out the pain in every joint, and at least with the steam beading on his face he couldn't tell if he were still sweating.
He didn't know how long he lay there in the slowly cooling water, head tilted back against the curved edge of the bath, with no sound to insult his pounding head but the occasional lap of the water against the sides. But after a time he heard something that sounded magnified fifty times in his delicate state – a metallic scraping; a click; the heavy tread of footsteps.
He didn't know who it was coming into his apartment. By that point in time, Illya didn't care. It could have been the pizza boy, it could have been a cat burglar, it could have been a horde of Thrush assassins coming to take him out. Right now he would have taken the bullet as a welcome mercy.
He leant his head back against the roll top of the bath and groaned. He should do something. He really should. But stupidly he'd left his gun just out of reach on the closed toilet lid and he really didn't think he could move. No, he couldn't move at all.
The door to the bathroom cracked open, and he lolled his head towards it, gazing blearily at the face that appeared. Then he let out a long breath. Napoleon…
'Illya?' Napoleon asked, his face creased in concern. 'May I – uh – may I come in?'
'I think you already are,' Illya murmured, referring to the fact that his partner must have come through every lock and alarm he had set to enter the apartment. 'How did you – ?'
Napoleon held up something brass and glittering, and Illya winced at that quick assault on his vision.
'Spare key, remember. You gave me it months ago.' He pushed through the door then and came to stand by the bath, looking down at his partner's nude form in the water without a hint of embarrassment. 'Illya, you haven't been to work in four days and you didn't call, either.'
'Oh,' Illya said unsteadily. Four days. Had it really been only four days? He had spent the last four days shivering in bed, burning up, and expelling the contents of his stomach either into his toilet, or, when he hadn't felt able to move, into the trash can at the side of his bed. It had felt like years.
'You're sick,' Napoleon said rather unnecessarily, touching the back of his hand to his partner's moisture-beaded forehead.
'Yes,' Illya said simply.
'Well, it's a good thing I came round. Are you finished in there?'
Illya turned his hands over and looked down distractedly at his fingertips, which were wrinkled up into deep ridges and furrows.
'Yes, I think I am,' he said.
Napoleon looked around the room, and tutted when he found there was not a towel in sight.
'What happened to that nice bathrobe I gave you last Christmas?' he asked.
'Oh, er – '
Illya remembered hunching on his hands and knees as his stomach contorted, and the tails of the robe he was wearing being the only thing he had to catch the torrent from his mouth. That had been earlier on, when he still had more in his stomach than bile.
'It's dirty,' he said simply.
Napoleon tutted again, disappeared out of the room for a moment, and returned with a large and rather threadbare towel with a geometric pink, grey, and green pattern covering its surface. In his condition it made Illya feel sick all over again.
'I'll buy you towels next Christmas,' Napoleon said disapprovingly. He yanked the plug out of the plug hole without preamble. 'Come on, up and at 'em.'
Illya tried to push himself up as the water swirled away around his body. It was odd, amazing really, that so little water could cling so hard to the contours of his hips and legs. Odd that he couldn't manage to –
'I can't,' he said. His legs had turned to jelly, his head spinning. He looked up into Napoleon's face, thanking god for his presence, because otherwise he might have been stuck here for god knows how many hours. 'Napoleon, I don't think I can stand up.'
Napoleon's lightly critical expression turned to one of sheer concern.
'Come on, tovarisch,' he said as the last of the water swirled and gurgled away from the bottom of the bath. He gently folded the towel around his partner's shoulders and then grabbed him solidly, pulling him up out of the cast iron trap and steadying him as he stepped trembling onto the floor.
'Oh, I – '
No. He couldn't speak through the screaming in his ears, the spots before his eyes, the feeling that his stomach again was trying to project itself right up his throat and out of his mouth. Nothing came of the retching but bitter bile in his mouth, and then the screaming and the flashing spots enveloped everything – and then there he was, lying on something extremely, beautifully soft, his limbs being gently towelled dry and Napoleon's voice murmuring just above him. He had thought that his bed was old and lumpy, but suddenly it was the most wonderful thing in the world, cradling him under every joint. A sheet and a blanket were folded back over him, and those were the most wonderful things in the world too. He opened his eyes and gazed at Napoleon, ridiculously grateful almost to the point of tears. He felt as if his life had been saved. But –
'Am I dying?' he asked.
Napoleon smiled gently and touched his forehead again with the back of his hand. His fingers felt deliciously cool. 'No, comrade, you are not dying, although it smells like something's died in here. I think you've got the stomach 'flu.'
'Oh...' That made sense. It did. He had never had the stomach 'flu before, but he had heard others complain of the symptoms. In fact, hadn't Mandy in Translation been off work with something like that just last week? 'Not dying?'
'Not dying,' Napoleon reassured him gently. 'Illya, why didn't you call in?'
He looked fuzzily sideways at the night stand, where there stood a discarded glass and an empty aspirin bottle. He could see his telephone through the doorway, right on the other side of the living room, a distance that felt like miles in his condition. His communicator had fallen down behind the bed when he had reached for it to call in, and he hadn't felt up to searching for it.
'My communicator's down there,' he said, waving his hand vaguely behind him. 'Ohh,' he moaned, low in his throat, as his stomach clenched again. He pressed his hand against his mouth and fought, and he managed to keep the retch down deep in his throat. The bed no longer felt like the best thing in the world. His joints were starting to hurt again since he had got out of the bath and his head throbbed.
'Where were you, anyway?' he asked fuzzily.
'I was out of town, remember, otherwise I would have been round the moment you didn't show up. Illya, have you eaten in the last four days?' Napoleon asked in a concerned tone.
'Oh, Napoleon,' he groaned. The very thought was awful.
'Illya? Have you eaten?'
'I don't know,' he said vaguely.
'Ah.' Napoleon had found the trash can and he picked it up between thumb and finger, holding it away from his body, his nose wrinkling. 'Well, now I know why it smells so bad in here. Do you have aspirin?'
Illya turned his eyes to the empty bottle on the night stand in answer.
'Ah, well, okay… Well, er – let me sort this out. I'll be back in a moment.'
He walked out of the room, holding the can at arm's length. Illya closed his eyes and rested back into the pillow thinking how good Napoleon was to him. It warmed him all through. Or was that the fever? He was sweating again, and he pushed the blanket back irritably from his chest and sighed in the coolness of the air that brushed against him. He could hear the sound of the toilet flushing in the other room, and then running water. Napoleon must be washing out the can. He couldn't think of a single person other than Napoleon in this country who would do that for him. Here Napoleon was. He had turned up like a guardian angel, helping him out of the bath and towelling him dry and touching his forehead and cleaning out the can of stale vomit. A huge feeling welled in his chest, and tears almost leaked from his eyes. Who else would tend to him like that except Napoleon?
He rested his head deeper into the pillow and listened idly to the sounds going on in the other room. Then he heard a noise of disgust and half opened his eyes to see Napoleon hopping on one foot, his face a mask of disdain, and something blue held out at arm's length in his hand. He had found the bath robe. That made him smile, but even smiling made his muscles ache. He closed his eyes again and stopped bothering about listening, and fell away as sleep dragged him back into oblivion.
He was dreaming… He was so hot... There were Thrushes all around him, but they were all wearing masks, comedy and tragedy and comedy again. Leering, looming, dancing closer. He couldn't reach his gun. His arm wouldn't move. He tried to lift his communicator but it fumbled from his hand and every time he tried to pick it up it fell again. They were coming closer, not with guns, but with cords to strangle him, cloths to suffocate him, and he tried to yell but the sound wouldn't leave his throat and –
Something was shaking him, making all his joints hurt again. His head hurt. His eyes hurt as he blinked them open. And there was Napoleon, looking down at him in concern. He lay there for a moment just staring, bewildered, and then realised that the sheet underneath him was soaked with sweat, but he was shaking with cold. His teeth started to chatter so hard it made him moan, and Napoleon tucked the blanket up over him again.
'Here now, take these.'
His hand slipped behind Illya's head and lifted it up a little, while with the other hand he popped two tablets through Illya's lips and held a glass to them for him to drink. He recognised the salt metallic taste of aspirin, and he swallowed gratefully.
'I popped out for some supplies while you were sleeping,' Napoleon said gently. 'What food you had was off. I had to chop the milk up before it'd go down the plughole.'
Illya knew he should laugh but laughing would hurt his head. Then Napoleon said, 'When did you last eat?'
He cast his mind back, and couldn't think. He had a vague memory of gnawing on a stale slice of bread, but he couldn't remember when.
'Well, I got you some soup,' Napoleon continued after waiting a moment for an answer. 'Think you can manage that?'
His stomach turned over. 'Oh, Napoleon, really...' he said.
'I'll take that as I'll try, Napoleon, otherwise I might have to call in the big guns,' Napoleon said.
Illya puzzled over that as Napoleon walked away with an easy stride, his silk-sheened, exquisitely tailored grey suit at odds with his role as nursemaid. He came back with a bowl of soup and a damp washcloth, which Illya was glad of because he was boiling again.
'Now, first things first,' Napoleon said, producing a thermometer and tapping the mercury down into the bulb. 'Open up, my friend.'
Illya opened his mouth to protest, but Napoleon took that as consent and popped the end of the instrument in under his tongue. It seemed easier then to acquiesce than to argue, so he waited until Napoleon withdrew the glass tube again and examined it.
'A hundred and two,' he said critically. 'Not good, Illya. That's not good at all.'
Illya felt that little spike of panic again. 'I'm really not dying?'
Then Napoleon grinned. 'Illya, you have been ill before, you know.'
'I'm never ill,' he said rather indignantly, except he didn't feel well enough for that to translate into anything beyond a slightly hard look.
'I seem to remember you having a humdinger of a cold last winter. Are you sure you're never ill, or do you just shove it out of your memory like you do with every other weakness you don't want to admit to?'
'Is that a weakness like ending a sentence with a preposition?' Illya growled, and Napoleon grinned.
'Rules like that are for second language speakers. Being unable to take criticism is also a weakness, comrade. Now, about that soup...'
Illya managed two thirds of the bowl before he brought it all up again. He wondered if Napoleon regretted not bringing back the trash can – and wearing that exquisite, quite expensive, dry clean only suit. He wouldn't be able to put this one on U.N.C.L.E.'s tab without some very creative thinking.
To Napoleon's credit he said nothing about the suit. He just waited until Illya was quite done, took off his jacket, carried the Russian into the living room, and swaddled him on the sofa with a blanket. Then he went back into the bedroom, and came back after a moment with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his arms full of the dirty bedding.
'I think it was high time it was changed anyway,' he said pragmatically. 'Now, please tell me you do have clean sheets somewhere?'
'Yeah, in the airing cupboard,' Illya nodded, trying to keep a lid on his nausea.
Napoleon stood for a moment just staring at him intensely, then he came over and took Illya's hand. He pinched the skin on the back of it and watched how long it took for the peak to settle.
'You're dehydrated,' he commented, and disappeared into the kitchen. He came back with a glass and a pot of water. In lieu of Illya having any kind of jug he had used the coffee pot. He poured out a glass and handed it to the Russian. 'Drink that,' he said.
Illya almost spat it out as the salty-sweet taste hit his tongue.
'No, drink it,' Napoleon said sternly. 'You need to replace your salts and the sugar will help give you some energy. Drink it.'
Illya grimaced, but he drank the whole glass, and when Napoleon next passed with clean sheets in his arms he poured out another.
Ten minutes later Illya was tucked in bed again in clean pyjamas, with crisp clean cotton enveloping him, and Napoleon was diligently dipping the washcloth, cooling Illya's forehead, and dipping it again when it became too warm. Illya just gazed at him thankfully. The aspirin had kicked in and he was starting to feel more human. The room no longer smelt of illness and stale vomit, and there was a slight breeze coming in through the opened window.
Then he brought up the water he had drunk, but this time Napoleon was ready, putting a wide bowl in front of him before he could dirty the new sheets.
'Oh, you're good to me,' Illya sighed.
Napoleon smiled, and swiped his head again with the cool cloth.
'Are you sure I'm not dying?' Illya asked one more time, but really he felt too comfortable to be dying in any respectable fashion. Before Napoleon could form a reply Illya had drifted into sleep again.
When he woke Napoleon was pinching the back of his hand again, his forehead creased in concern. When he saw that Illya's eyes were open he smiled, and picked up the thermometer from the night stand.
'Time to take your temperature again.'
'Yes, Nurse,' Illya replied, and opened his mouth obediently. Napoleon slid the thermometer in and he held it under his tongue, trying not to revolt at the feeling of the glass tube there.
'Hmm,' Napoleon said when he removed it, looking at the silver line.
'Huh?' Illya asked. He felt sweaty and uncomfortable and knew he'd slept badly, with odd dreams about parachutes and aspirin and being desperately thirsty.
'You're up a little on before. I'd ask if you took your own temperature at all before I got here, but since I had to buy this when I went to get the aspirin, I assume not.
'I told you, I'm never – '
'You're never ill,' Napoleon cut across. 'What about that time last March when you had that dodgy hot dog in the Central Park Zoo, huh? Or when you came down with the 'flu during the Ghana Affair?' At Illya's glazed expression he said, 'I told you, you must just block these things out of your memory. Crazy Russian.'
For answer, Illya vomited, and although Napoleon put the bowl under his head just in time, nothing came up. His ribs and his stomach muscles hurt abominably from four days of vomiting, and he felt utterly miserable even with Napoleon here beside him.
'Illya, when did you last pass urine?' Napoleon asked very seriously.
Illya stared at him blankly.
'Oh, er...' He cast his mind back and couldn't think. Napoleon sighed.
'Okay, I'll try to make it more simple. Have you passed urine today?'
Illya shook his head slowly. Mostly he had just lain in bed feeling terrible, apart from when he was in the bath.
'What about last night? Since it got dark out?'
'I don't think so,' he admitted, and Napoleon's expression hardened.
'I want you to drink some more of this,' he said, pouring another glass of the ghastly sugar and salt condition. Illya grimaced and turned away. 'No, it's important, Illya,' Napoleon said in a voice like steel. 'Now drink it. Don't make me hold your nose and stroke your throat to get it down.'
'I'm not a cat,' Illya protested.
Napoleon gave him a penetrating look. 'Are you sure about that?'
He held Illya a little upright and pressed the glass to his lips, and all but forced the liquid down.
'Now just try to hold onto that,' he said sternly, as if Illya could control his treacherous stomach. Illya promptly spewed the entire glass over Napoleon's clean shirt.
'Ungh,' Napoleon said. He looked down ruefully. 'This is a silk tie, you know.' He regarded Illya for a few silent moments, as Illya tried to look appropriately regretful but felt too ill and feverish to really manage it. Then he said, 'That's it. You've had your chance. I'm taking you to U.N.C.L.E. medical.'
Dismay blossomed. 'Oh, Napoleon, no, I'm fine! It's just the stomach 'flu. You said so yourself. Look, give me some more of that – delightful – drink. I'll keep it down this time.'
'Uh-uh,' Napoleon shook his head. 'You've ruined an extremely expensive jacket, a good shirt, and my favourite tie, to say nothing of what the spatters have done to my pants. I'll be lucky if Del Floria can do a thing with them. I'm taking you in.'
His partner fixed him with eyes so serious he almost fell into the brown depths. 'Illya, you are sick. You need rehydrating, and you can't keep a thing down. You don't have a choice in this matter.'
Illya flopped back onto the bed with a long sigh. He really felt far too ill for this. Even being carried to the sofa had felt like effort. He felt dizzy when he moved. He didn't want to have to walk to Napoleon's car and be driven through the streets.
'I've changed my mind,' he murmured, eyes closed. 'I just want to be left alone to die.'
'Now, what would Mr Waverly say if I let you die from stomach 'flu?' Napoleon asked tartly. 'Do you have a robe – Oh, no, I trod in that,' he interrupted himself, nose wrinkling.
Illya gestured vaguely towards the corner of the room. 'Dressing gown, over there somewhere...'
He half opened his eyes to watch as Napoleon went and poked through the pile of clothes that Illya had meant to sort out a week ago. Finally his partner drew out a heavy woollen dressing gown in a discreet brown tartan weave.
'What's this, clan McKuryakin?' he asked, holding it up and looking it up and down.
'I have no idea, but I brought it from England, and it's warm and New York can be cold,' Illya replied, shutting his eyes again. 'Napoleon, really, I don't need to go anywhere.'
'You want me to call an ambulance?'
Illya shuddered. He would, too. Napoleon had no shame. Napoleon tossed the dressing gown over to him and said firmly, 'Put it on. And be glad you had clean pyjamas. I'll put a few things in a bag for you.'
A few minutes later Illya was holding onto Napoleon's arm and tottering like a new-born lamb towards the apartment door, trying to keep his stomach from lurching and praying he wouldn't be revisited with the desperate need for the toilet while he was in the car.
'Come on, now. Little steps,' Napoleon said, sounding like an anxious mother with a small child. 'Hmm, maybe I should have called that ambulance,' he mused as Illya stopped to lean on the doorpost, sweating hard and trying to stop the feeling that the room was spinning.
'No, no, really,' Illya insisted, straightening up again and overcompensating a little so that he lurched the other way. Napoleon caught him and held him upright.
'All right then. One foot in front of the other. Not far to the elevator now.'
In the elevator Illya leant against the wall, squinting against the light in there, wishing someone hadn't thought it would be nice to put a mirror all the way across one wall.
'Oh, Napoleon, there is a very small man in my head with a very large hammer,' he moaned.
'I know,' Napoleon said soothingly. The doors slid open. 'Come on now.'
'Oh, you are so good to me,' Illya murmured, then looked up, startled. 'Did I say that aloud?'
'You did indeed, tovarisch,' Napoleon grinned, putting an arm around his back as they crossed the lobby. 'So you can't fool me any more. Not now I know just how much you love me?'
Illya slewed to a halt. 'Did I say that aloud?'
Napoleon stopped too, and stared at him. 'No, you didn't. Why? Do you love me that much?'
Illya swallowed on a sudden surge of nausea and said, 'I reserve the right to silence. I'm ill. I don't know what I'm saying.'
Napoleon hugged him a little tighter around the back. 'Whatever you say, but your reputation as the Russian iceberg has just been sunk. Come on, let's get you into that car.'
'Four days... You could have called for an ambulance,' the doctor on duty said as he leant over Illya, peering into his eyes. Illya lay on an examination couch, white as a sheet, obviously struggling to keep his eyes open for the doctor. The walk from the car to the infirmary had been the last straw.
'I could have, yes, but he still has his special, and he's a good shot even when he's half delirious,' Napoleon said dryly. The doctor would be aware that he was only half joking.
'Well...' the doctor sighed. 'You field agents, you're all the same. Sometimes I think you'd rather die than be put in a hospital bed. But you have no choice,' he said sternly, turning to Illya. 'Your temperature is above tolerable levels and Mr Solo was right. You are severely dehydrated.' He turned to the nurse who was hovering in the corner and said to her, 'I want him on a saline drip, and anti-emetic, and put a catheter in so we can monitor his urine output.'
Illya groaned, and Napoleon squeezed his hand in sympathy. During having a catheter inserted or removed was one of the few times he had ever heard the Russian really swear.
'I will kill you, Napoleon,' he said through gritted teeth.
'At least you'll be alive to do that,' Napoleon replied with a grin. 'And you won't be able to run after me with a tube up your – '
Napoleon couldn't tell if Illya were blushing or just flushed from his temperature. The doctor caught his eye.
'Why don't you pop outside for a few minutes, Mr Solo, and we'll get him settled? Get yourself some coffee or report in to the old man, eh? He must be wondering what's happened to his best agent.'
'His best agent?' Napoleon straightened his cuffs in a hurt kind of way. 'Well, all right, although knowing Mr Waverly he might not even remember who Illya is after all this time,' he said rather uncharitably.
But suddenly Illya was convulsing on the bed as if trying to expel a demon, and the nurse and doctor were crowding round, and Napoleon was just staring, horrified.
'It's all right, Mr Solo,' the doctor said very calmly without turning around, not pausing in his attention to the Russian. 'He's fitting in response to the dehydration. You brought him in just in time.'
Napoleon closed his eyes guiltily, unable to watch, trying not to listen, cursing himself for not bringing Illya in the moment he'd found him in the bath, cursing himself for being unable to look now.
'He'll sleep for a while now,' a voice said, and Napoleon blinked his eyes open, startled to see the doctor right next to him, his hand a hair's breadth from his arm. 'Go check in with Waverly like I said. He'll be settled in his room when you're back.'
Napoleon came back with a bunch of assorted flowers wrapped in paper. He felt slightly self-conscious about that, but traditionally he brought grapes, and he didn't think Illya would be pleased by the sight of food at the moment. So he stepped out briefly after seeing Waverly and bought flowers instead, ignoring the loaded questions of various female staff members on his way back to the infirmary about who the lucky girl was. He huffed a little. For a girl he would have brought roses, perhaps orchids, or something equally lavish. He wasn't even sure what this mix of flowers were. They looked mostly like coloured daisies.
Illya was almost the colour of the pillow he lay on, apart from the dark circles under his eyes and the straw-gold of his hair. His eyes were still bright with fever. He smiled wanly when Napoleon came in, and Napoleon presented him with the flowers with a flourish.
'For you,' he said with his most charming smile, and to his surprise a hint of pink tinted Illya's cheeks.
'Flowers are a curious gift,' Illya murmured, taking the bouquet in one weak hand and dropping it onto the covers. 'One takes living things, cuts off their heads, and presents said heads to the recipient, causing much bother for the nurses who must find a vase and keep it filled with water when they should be performing more vital tasks. Then one sits them on an available surface and waits for them to die.'
Napoleon slung himself into the chair by the bed. At least visitors' chairs here in the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary were comfortable, in deference to the many hours partners sometimes spent in them.
'Well, I'll remember never to bring you flowers again, surly,' he said in a disgruntled tone, although the pink in Illya's cheeks and the look of pleasure he couldn't hide from his eyes were thanks enough. 'I thought they might brighten your sick room.'
'They do,' Illya said simply. 'It is good to have a sick room brightened by something,' he added meeting his partner's eyes, and Napoleon shivered as he gained the distinct impression that Illya was no longer talking about the flowers.
He wrenched his eyes away from Illya's blue ones before he could start to read too much more into his gaze, and instead flickered over the various tubes sprouting from his partner. He looked at the urine container low down on the bed frame, and saw it was still empty, unsurprisingly. But there was a drip leading into his left arm and a clear jar hung high up full of precious fluids which were leaching into his partner's vein.
'How are you feeling, tovarisch?' he asked, leaning forward a little.
Illya gave him a half smile. 'I have been better,' he said, 'but then I have also been worse, so there are no complaints. Thank you, Napoleon. Thank you for another gallant last minute rescue.'
Napoleon put aside the flowers and pressed his hand over Illya's. 'I'll always have your back,' he promised, 'whether it's against Thrush or crazed dissidents or enemies invisible to the naked eye.'
Illya smiled rather cynically, but Napoleon read the trust in his eyes.
'I'm sorry I spoilt your suit,' Illya said.
'I'm sorry I didn't bring you in straight away.'
Illya shrugged minutely. 'You brought me chicken soup. What more does a man need?'
Napoleon squeezed his hand over Illya's, thinking, This, partner mine. Only this.