Napoleon let himself into the hotel room, not bothering to worry about being quiet. He'd left his partner in a drug-induced sleep that nothing short of the Second Coming would shake him free of. After getting Illya settled, Napoleon had slipped out to find a bit of his own style of stress relief. The young lady he'd ended up with had been sweet, generous, and accommodating. The evening started out with great promise. He'd taken the young lady home and they'd made love, but it didn't provide the pressure release Napoleon had hoped. He kissed her goodnight, promised to call and returned to his hotel room much earlier than he'd expected.
Illya was still in pretty much the same position as Napoleon had left him, his wounded leg propped up on some pillows, his injured hand held close to his body. From the sheen of sweat on Illya's face, however, Napoleon guessed infection had set in. That's the problem with being stabbed, aside from the obvious. Knives were seldom sterile and carried all sorts of fun garbage on them just waiting to infect a wound. The local doctors had done the best they could, but it was usually never enough.
He took a few minutes to peel out of his shoulder holster and suit, brush the taste of his date from his mouth and get ready for bed. Then he grabbed a washcloth, doused it with cool water and wrung it out. Carrying it to the bed, he draped it over Illya's forehead and carefully began to undo the bandage that bound Illya's thigh.
His wrist was caught in an iron grip and Napoleon froze.
"Take it easy, Illya, it's just me."
"The one and only." The grip eased and Napoleon continued to work the gauze loose. "You're bleeding again."
"Surprise..." Illya had fallen back to the pillows and was taking deep breaths. It didn't take a rocket scientist to recognize the signs of someone trying to control pain.
"Tell you what, let's get some more pain medication into you. This can wait a few minutes for them to kick in. You'll be more comfortable."
"No, I'm okay. Just give me a minute."
Napoleon gave him five as he went to retrieve the medication and some towels. One towel he soaked in warm water. The others he spread out under Illya's leg. The wet one was draped over the top. That accomplished, he pried open the bottle and shook two tablets out. These he offered with a glass of water.
"I'd rather have whiskey... or better yet, vodka."
"And I'd rather not have to readmit you for drug interaction. Just take the pills and stop arguing with me."
"They make me logy." Yet Illya palmed the pills and after a second popped them in his mouth. He drank some of the water and held the rest back towards Napoleon who shook his head and crossed his arms.
"All of it." He accepted the empty glass and set it aside before returning his attention to the leg. "I don't know what you're worried about. I'm here."
"That's what worries me..." Illya tried to make it light, but hissed as Napoleon peeled away a layer of gauze.
"And I'm going to wait a bit more." He dribbled more water onto the towel and watched Illya start to struggle against the pain medication.
"Just relax, partner, I've got you.""
"Down! Get down, Illya!" Illya responded by instinct rather than conscious thought. Though they'd only been partnered for a few months, he knew and trusted his partner's instructions.
They had been on a routine drop off - nothing complicated. A milk run, one of the Americans called it. Illya was still struggling with British colloquialisms, but he didn't ask. He preferred to watch and learn that way.
They had entered the building and immediately Illya had grown suspicious, a feeling that grew exponentially as they got closer to the target. One of his fellow agents went down before they even had a chance to react.
Illya headed for a stack of crates and was exchanging gun fire when his partner had shouted the warning. He dove and narrowly missed taking a slug to the back. He spun and shot, dropping the man in his tracks.
He glanced over at his partner and hesitated, just for a second. But it was a second too long and in the next heartbeat, it was over. Illya didn't remember much after that, the next few hours were a confusing mixture of nightmarish reality and mind-numbing guilt.
He cradled his dead partner until the body was pried from his arms; he didn't recall anything, except staring at the blood on his hands and the overwhelming sadness that threatened to crush his very soul as he sat in Medical.
"How are you feeling, son?" He remembered rousing himself out of his stupor for Mr. Allison, who spoke kindly to him about the incident and the contribution that his partner had made to the organization. "He was married, you know." Since they were Section Threes, they had that option.
"Yes, we've met. She is a singularly remarkable young lady." Meredith had been weighing heavily upon his mind and he felt even more guilty. "Has she been told?"
"No, not yet." Allison had gestured with a manila envelope. "I was about to turn his personal effects over to her."
"Sir, may I be permitted?"
"Are you sure, Mr. Kuryakin? You still seem a bit... shaken."
"I need to, sir. He was my partner. I owe this to him."
He stood outside the small cottage for a long time, working up his courage, trying to decide upon the right words, the proper cadence and mood. It hadn't matter; she'd opened the door, taken one look at his face and known the truth.
"Bobby's dead, isn't he?"
"Oh, Illya..." He'd embraced her at that point and somehow managed to get off the stoop and inside the front door. There was a time to be brave and a time to mourn. They sat in the sun on the red tile in the entryway and sobbed until neither of them had anything left.
"It was my fault, Meredith... I was too slow... I was afraid..."
"Illya, it wasn't your fault. It was the job's fault. I always knew Bobby was going to die in the line of duty. I knew it from the minute he first kissed me. I was always going to be second in his life. The job came first. He used to talk about sacrifice, what it meant to him, to us." She had torn the envelope open and spread the contents out, a few pitiful pieces that represented a man's life. She lifted the wedding ring, and kissed it, then placed it in Illya's hand and curled his fingers over it. "Take this. You're as married to the job as he was. "
"I can't..." He tried to force it back upon her, not daring to admit he'd nearly pocketed it already, desperate for a reminder of his own shortcomings.
"Bobby would want you to."
A reminder to be faster, smarter, more willing to die. He slid it on his finger and vowed he'd never take it off.
He came to with a start, sitting up before his body could urge him otherwise. "My ring..."
"Don't worry, we managed to get it off before the doc set your fingers. " Napoleon felt in his pants pocket to make sure the ring was still safely tucked away. He swung his legs over the edge of his small twin bed and walked over to Illya's. "How are you feeling?"
"I've been better..." Illya eased himself back down. "How long?"
"About seven hours." Napoleon felt his forehead and Illya twisted his head out of reach. "The doctor came about four hours ago."
"And I slept through it? Imagine that."
"Well, he sedated you. You were having some crazy nightmares, my friend."
"One of the upsides of pain medication."
Napoleon poured a glass of water and passed it over. "Who is Bobby?"
Illya paused in drinking the water and then continued. "No one special."
"And thank you for playing our game. Now, try again, who's Bobby."
"No one, really."
"You were pleading with him, Illya. Begging him not to die. I rather think he was someone really important." Napoleon pulled the gold band from his pocket and held it out to Illya. "Someone connected with this ring. BS-MS 07-24-55. It's engraved on the inside. BS... Bobby?"
Illya studied the band for a moment and slipped it onto his right ring finger. "I'm very tired, Napoleon, please... can this not wait for another day?"
"I think it's waited long enough."
"May I have another pain pill then?"
"Talk first, then medicate." Napoleon reached for Illya's undamaged hand and fingered the ring. "So what's the story behind this? I know you weren't married and widowed... or left someone behind, because UNCLE would have uncovered that. This happened more recently."
"I'd rather not."
"Illya, you are one of the bravest men I know, but what does this represent that has you so frightened?" He touched the ring again.
"It represents the tremendous cost of failure."
"A wedding ring? Failure?" Napoleon released the hand and watched Illya slowly begin to withdraw into himself. "You need to do better than that and please do me the honor of not feeding me a cock and bull story."
The sigh was long; the pause even longer. Finally, just when Napoleon was about to give it up as a lost cause, Illya started to talk, very quietly and measured.
"You remember before I was sent to New York, I worked out of the London office?"
"Yes, during the Waverly/Allison transition."
"I had a partner... Bobby Sinclair."
"Don't remember him. "
"No one does, except me and his widow... and I'm not even sure about her anymore. I haven't spoken with Meredith in years."
"This must have been... '57?" Napoleon tried to remember when the edict came down from Section One that it was preferred for Section Two agents to be single and while Section Threes could marry, it wasn't encouraged.
"We went on a courier drop. We didn't know until afterwards that we had a double agent in our midst. The whole thing was a set up. SMERSH was trying to embarrass the Soviets, limit their involvement."
"Care to explain that?"
"Not really..." Illya adjusted his position, wincing as he moved his propped up leg. "I could really use the bathroom, Napoleon. It would be easier with your help."
"All right, but this isn't a 'get out of jail free' card."
It took longer than Napoleon anticipated, but eventually he had Illya settled back in bed, his face gray with pain. He couldn't deny him any longer and he watched Illya swallow the tablets gratefully.
"So, you have about ten minutes before those hit. The rest of the story, Illya."
"I hesitated. It was just a couple of seconds, but as you well know, that is all it takes. You see, I'd never been hurt before, not seriously. I knew if I said something, I was going to get shot and I was scared."
"Not for an UNCLE agent, Napoleon."
"That's holding yourself up to some pretty high ideals, partner. You can't be more than human."
"Can't I? If I'd yelled, shot, done anything, Bobby would still be alive." Illya's voice was starting to slur around the edges.
"And you'd probably be dead, particularly if that was the underlying intent of the conflict. I don't care much for that image." Napoleon smiled sadly as he thought of a work environment without his Russian partner. "Is that why you wear the ring?"
"No, I wear it because it reminds me that there is far greater pain and misery in life than the physical. I wear it to remind myself that it's my job to watch out for you and to keep the promise that I failed to keep so long ago. Bobby had three rules..."
"Rule One - don't get killed."
"Good rule and the second one?"
"Don't let your partner get killed."
"And the last one?"
"Rule Number Two is more important than Rule Number One."
That made so much sense and explained more than he cared to know. He'd read the reports about Illya's flagrant disregard for his own safety at times. He'd always wondered what drove the man and now he knew.
He reached down and carefully slid the too-loose ring off Illya's finger. "I think you've made good on that promise, Illya. It's time to stop offering yourself up as a sacrificial lamb."
"No, not now, not ever" Illya murmured. "Rule Three always stands." His head lolled and Napoleon smiled sadly.
"Even if it kills you? I don't think so, partner. You are brave, you are smart and you have saved my life a hundred times over. You don't need a ring for that, Illya, you have the heart. It's time you start trusting that. You've paid your dues a thousand times over." He set the ring down on the nightstand between the two twin beds. "Rule Three cuts both ways, partner, and I guess it's up to me to make you see that."
There was no response, not that he expected any. He knew you could only fight the medication for so long and Illya wasn't resisting... this time. Napoleon studied his partner; this answered so many questions Napoleon had about Illya's past. He'd always wondered what drove his partner to take some of the risks he did.
He glanced back down at the ring and sighed. How could something so small carry such an enormous burden with it? Eternally binding to some, just a piece of jewelry to others; Illya murmured something and Napoleon smiled. Now it was to him to show Illya the difference.
He picked up the ring, went over to his jacket and took his communicator out of his jacket pocket.
"Open Channel D please, Overseas relay."
"Channel D is open. How is Spain this evening, Napoleon?"
"Frío sin ti, mi amor." He flirted because it was expected. "I need a favor, Martha, my sweet."
"Anything, Napoleon... how do you say that in Spanish?"
"Cualquier cosa. Martha, I need you to do some digging." He held the ring up, the finish winking in the lamp light. "I need everything you can dig up on an agent, Bobby Sinclair. I'll hold on..."