Disclaimer: I do not own Man From U.N.C.L.E., and make no profit from this work.
In The Blink of an Eye
The world was...still.
It was an unusual situation. Illya was used to waking up to chaos – although well-acquainted with being smashed over the head, he was never out for long, and usually managed to recover in the middle of the same chaos that had felled him.
So to drift back up through the layers of consciousness – a luxury he had not permitted himself since a drunken student party at the Sorbonne – in such stillness and silence was...odd.
The familiar voice – and how Illya relaxed at the sound of it – was filled with an easy humour that let Illya calm down, and he cracked open sensitive eyes to the white of a hospital room, and the tired smile on Napoleon's face.
"What...?" he managed, before subsiding, and Napoleon chuckled.
"Rather one too many strikes for the enemy, my friend," he said lightly. "A T.H.R.U.S.H. guard hit you with a vase and you went down like a sack of potatoes."
"Oviedo," Napoleon said, and shrugged. "The Spanish could use better medical facilities, I suppose, but they extracted us promptly. You've been out about two hours."
Illya's sigh was heavy, releasing. Two hours. Not three years. Two hours.
"A...a scientist," he said eventually. "And...the team from Santander."
"Yes," Napoleon said. "We got him, by the way. But apparently your skull decided it had had quite enough of being abused and turned you off."
"When can we leave?" Illya demanded. He shifted to sit up, and the headache exploded anew behind his eyes. He heard himself groan, as his senses spun, and Napoleon snorted.
"When you can walk in something approaching a straight line," he said. "They won't let you fly with a head injury, Illya, you know that as well I do."
"Right now, I would settle for being out of the hospital," Illya said sourly.
Napoleon chuckled again, and Illya closed his eyes. The sound was warm and reassuring, even in the distastefully familiar surroundings of a hospital.
"Care to tell me why you seemed so surprised to be here?"
He didn't bother to ask how Napoleon had noticed. The man was strange – so unprofessional, so suave and cavalier, so carefree and sometimes downright silly. And yet it would be unusual for him to miss those tiny signs that something was out of place. He was not surprised that the man had noticed, even as he checked himself mentally for anything that would have given things away.
"Later," he said, and Napoleon subsided easily enough.
The sound of the ceiling fan was the world for a while, and then Illya drifted away again.
Four days later found them at a hotel in Santander approved by the local U.N.C.L.E. wing, and under orders not to put 'Señor Rusiano' anywher near an aeroplane, or any other kind of transportation device faster than the average Basque taxi.
As Russians were still – understandably – undesirable in Spain (perhaps even more so than in the USA) what with the slightly differing political viewpoints of Franco's regime and the USSR, Illya had allowed himself to remain in the hotel, being, for lack of a better term, idle in the rare period of rest and recuperation that he was allowed.
In those days, he had slowly told Napoleon of the situation he'd thought he was in – be it a dream, or a hallucination, or something else entirely.
"I would aim for hallucination," Napoleon advised. "You weren't exactly still and calm."
"No," Napoleon said. "We had to strap you down in the helicopter to the hospital. You were absolutely out of it. An interrogation drug couldn't have thrown you for a better loop."
"Babbling," Napoleon shrugged. "Usual kind of head-injury nonsense. Mostly in Hungarian, though, and you were probably cursing a blue streak. Vasquez only goes that colour when someone is being very insulting about his God."
Illya couldn't help himself, and snickered.
"Who's Stepan?" Napoleon asked.
Illya started, and frowned.
"I talked about...?"
"No, you talked to him," Napoleon said. "Who was he?"
"A...friend. From Moscow. He...I trusted him," Illya said. "As much as I do you, perhaps even more. But I haven't thought about him in years. He's been dead for over a decade. Why would he have been in my...hallucinations?"
"He was the one who told me that it wasn't real," Illya murmured.
"Maybe that's why," Napoleon said. "You trusted him. His judgement mattered to you. You might not have listened to anyone else."
"But it seems too...simple. Too easy to say that it was just a...a concussion-induced dream," Illya argued.
"The mind is a strange thing," Napoleon said. "You can believe in your friend's ghost coming back to guide you, you can believe in your brain's systems simply misfiring badly. Whatever you want. You'll probably never know."
"How do I know this is real?"
There was a long pause, in which Napoleon surveyed him almost warily. This was the man he had missed in his dreams. The man who cared, undoubtedly, but did not fuss. Who left him his distances and was there when he was required. Who would never fail to come through for him, but could just as easily annoy him, argue with him, and fight him, in any scenario they chose.
"Well, if your Stepan turns up again, telling you it's not, you'd better trust him, hadn't you?" Napoleon said finally. "But for the time being, seeing as there's not a chance they'll be selling Russian vodka to a man with Kuryakin for a last name around here, do you want some brandy or are you going to stick with that revolting sangria?"
There was no headache.
The lakeshore was calm and peaceful, if one did not look at the water. Where normally there would have been a clear blue sky reflected in the still, smooth surface, now it was broken with bodies, the blood lapping at the shore like a foamy sea.
But the rattle of gunfire had died away at last, and though the birds were still silent for the time being, it was a horrifically peaceful scene.
Illya stood barefoot, just beyond the reach of the bloody water. It was a dream: the temperatures that day had been abominable, even for the Ukraine, and he would not have dreamed of taking his boots and socks off then. And, being a dream, the horrors of it were distant to him, and he was able to observe the decline of the battlefield like some watcher outside of time and space.
It came to him slowly that he was alone.
Oh, there were bodies, and there were the dead and dying, and from far away he could hear women and children screaming – those that were alive.
But there was no deep timbre, no familiar resonance, no smirk from a familiar, long-gone face.
Stepan slept on in his cold Russian grave, and Illya was alone.
It was real again – or, at the very least, real enough.