For the muncle "Down the Chimney Challenge" 2005.
"This," Napoleon said, "may not be the best idea you ever had, tovarishch."
"If I were you, I would stop talking and save my strength."
Illya's voice was caustic and grumpy, which was nothing new, but he also huffed and puffed enough to do a fair imitation of a steam engine, which was unusual enough for Napoleon to snort derisively. "Save my strength? Look who's talking."
"Look who's carrying 200 pounds of excess baggage."
"I do not weigh 200 pounds," Napoleon protested indignantly. "I only weigh--"
"--You weigh more than I do, so stop criticizing and start guiding. I don't have any idea where we're going, you know."
He knew, all right, so he held back any further remarks. Of course right now Illya didn't have any idea where they were headed; right now Illya was blind as a bat, in fact, and though the flash burns seemed fairly minor, at the moment Illya needed Napoleon to do the guiding if they planned to survive this screwed up mission with at least part of their hides intact.
It was too late for Napoleon's hide to end up in pristine condition. He had a hole in his leg big enough to park his sports car in, and it was throbbing mercilessly despite the tourniquet. His leg wouldn't support him, so he was forced to lean almost all of his weight on his temporarily blind partner as they made their halting way through the cave.
He'd let his attention lapse and Illya had walked into a rocky projection, ripping his tuxedo jacket and scoring a bloody line across his left biceps. "Sorry, comrade. More to the right, please."
"No, really? I never would have guessed." Illya shifted slightly and grunted as Napoleon settled into a different position against his right side. "Can you see anything up ahead?"
"Not past the end of the flashlight beam. You sure this tunnel ends up on the beach?"
"That's what Pepe Argento told me."
"You believed him?"
"I told him I wouldn't shoot him if he told me the truth."
"But you shot him anyway."
Illya raised a quizzical eyebrow. "What is your point?"
Napoleon dropped the subject. Frankly, it didn't matter to him if another Thrush maniac bit the dust. Besides, most of his attention was absorbed with his leg, which felt like it was on fire. "I need to stop a minute."
"No, move a little to the right. . .good. Ow, Christ, that smarts. Here, here's fine. We're near the wall."
Illya lowered Napoleon to the rocky floor of the cave and then settled himself with a tired sigh. "Do you need me to look at your wound. . .I mean, rebandage it?"
"Uh, no thanks. I'm not that eager to have you poke at it any more. Hurts enough as it is. You nearly killed me with that tourniquet."
Illya glowered at him, though his eyes weren't quite focused in the right direction. "Remind me to let you bleed to death next time you. . ." His voice trailed off strangely and Napoleon looked up. Illya's head was tilted slightly, as if he were listening to something.
"What do you hear? Someone in the cave?" When his partner didn't answer, Napoleon poked him. "Illya?"
The blond head turned toward him, and Napoleon was shocked by Illya's slack expression. "Napoleon. I think I. . ." Illya's eyes rolled up and he fell face first into Napoleon's lap.
"Illya!" Alarmed, Napoleon shook him roughly. When nothing happened, he slapped his cheek, continuing to call his name.
After a few interminable moments Illya's eyes slitted open. "It's dark."
"Yes, it is." Napoleon's relief was great, but it was tempered with worry. He pushed and tugged until Illya was sitting upright against a relatively smooth portion of the wall. "You fainted."
"I'd say the facts agree with your assessment," Illya replied with heavy sarcasm. "Have you considered a career in medicine?"
"Don't be a smart aleck. Why did you pass out? Are you that tired?"
"I thought you said you didn't weigh that much."
Illya sighed impatiently. "How should I know why I fainted, Napoleon? I don't remember anything about it-- Ow." He put a hand to his head.
"Nyet. . .no, I mean. . .my golova --head. Ow."
"Let me see." It wasn't a good sign that Illya was lapsing into Russian -- he usually never said more than two Russian words a year to Napoleon. His fingers gently probed the burned tissue around Illya's eyes, his partner complaining loudly the whole time about his heavy touch. Napoleon ignored the grousing. He let his hands travel up into the shaggy hair, where he felt around in Illya's scalp until his fingers encountered broken skin and a large lump. "What's this?"
"Ow! Napoleon! Eto povrezhdayet kak rasputnik materi! Quit poking me!"
Napoleon persisted. "When did you get this lump, Illya?"
"Probably when Pepe hit me."
"He hit you?"
"With an Erte statuette." Illya grimaced. "Bronze, I believe."
Napoleon's frown was lost on his companion, but the annoyance came through loud and clear. "You didn't mention you got bashed on the head, too."
"People are always bashing me, Napoleon, especially on my head. I thought you knew that."
"Yes, and I'm amazed your skull's still intact. You can joke away, tovarishch, but I think you've got a concussion. You should have told me he hit you. It could have affected the whole mission."
"Would that be the same mission you fouled up by coming through the window too early -- and unarmed?" There was more than annoyance in Illya's tone there was the familiar bitterness at a mission gone sour.
"Okay. Forget I said that. But you should have told me anyway."
Illya's shrug was almost invisible in the near-gloom. "You had your own problems."
"This?" Napoleon said lightly. "My leg, you mean? Nah. Just a scratch."
"And this is just a bump."
"No. It's not." Napoleon sighed and stretched, which tugged the fabric stuck to his wound and made him grimace. Fortunately Illya couldn't see him do so; otherwise he would have been in for more of his partner's irritated concern. "Know what I'm thinking?"
"I shudder to inquire."
Napoleon ignored his moodiness. "I'm thinking we need to stay here till dawn. The relief boat won't be here till then, anyway, and neither of us is in any shape to travel any more."
"Napoleon, I can still--"
"No. You can't."
"But your leg! You need--"
"I need rest." Napoleon tried to sound as logical as possible; he knew Illya was listening attentively for anything that sounded like a lie. "It's stopped bleeding, anyway." He hoped that was true. "We'll just sit out the rest of the night right here."
"If you can't see the tunnel entrance, how will you know it's dawn?"
"Always pragmatic. Don't worry, I have my watch. And a flashlight. Here--hand it to me." Illya passed it over and Napoleon slid back his sleeve to check the time. "Huh. Just as I suspected. Happy New Year, Illya."
"Where's my champagne?"
Napoleon laughed softly. "Sorry. Left it at the casino. Go ahead and make yourself comfortable."
"Napoleon. Save the batteries."
Typical Illya. Napoleon grinned into the gloom, despite the continuing danger that lurked beyond their narrow circle of light. He took stock of himself and their situation -- his leg ached, and he'd lost far too much blood to travel much further, even after a rest. Illya -- Well, his condition was less certain, but it was clear he needed medical help. The mission? A total disaster, start to finish. And he didn't even know for a fact if this tunnel led to safety or disaster.
A wave of desperation threatened to overwhelm him, but through a surge of will Napoleon pushed it away. Pointless to dwell on the negatives. On the positive side -- well, truthfully there wasn't much positive to consider -- but at least the two of them were alive. . .for the moment. He snapped off the flashlight, plunging them into darkness. Somehow that made it easier to believe they were safe. Nice absence of logic, Solo. Next to him Illya twitched restlessly, searching for a comfortable spot. "Hey," Napoleon said softly, "do yourself a favor and lean on me, okay?"
"You're too bony to make a good pillow, Napoleon," protested the familiar voice. "But I suppose I shall have to make do."
Illya was a solid presence on Napoleon's left. Though it wasn't cold in the cave, he welcomed his partner's warmth beside him; he found it strangely reassuring. "First you complain I weigh too much -- now I'm too bony? You can't have it both ways, you know."
Napoleon slid closer, ignoring the protest from his leg, and draped his arm around his partner's shoulders. To his surprise, Illya made no move to shrug him off. "You still alive, tovarishch?"
"Sadly, yes. Though I could use a little vodka to numb my headache."
"Sorry. All out of vodka, too."
"Mmm. You're a lousy host."
"I know, Illya, I know," Napoleon murmured. The fact was he felt like a pretty lousy host, and an even worse senior partner. He hadn't even noticed the extent of Illya's injuries. You'd think I was the blind one.
Silence enveloped them. Napoleon tightened his grip and smiled into the darkness when Illya moved to rest his head against his shoulder. "Hey." He shook Illya's shoulder lightly. "Don't go to sleep."
"Don't sleep, Illya. Not if you have a concussion."
"Says Dr. Solo."
"Where's your medical degree from, exactly?"
"You have to listen to me. I'm your host, remember?"
"Huh. Some party. And to think I wasted all that time putting on black tie."
"It suits you." Napoleon thought back to the night before, when Illya had appeared in the casino in full tuxedo-clad splendor. Napoleon always drew his share of attention, but he could feel the response pass through the room as Illya paused in the entrance, crisp white shirt, black-as-night jacket, amber lights reflecting in his blond hair. Not an eye had strayed elsewhere until Illya descended into the crowd. "You really should dress up more often. Man does not live by black turtlenecks alone."
"This man does."
"Well, at least this time Waverly can bitch at both of us, not just me, for ruining a tux."
"That's what I should call a hollow victory, my friend. And your schadenfreude is not appreciated."
"Pleasure at another's misfortunes. You should read more, Napoleon. It would increase your vocabulary."
"Thank you for your assessment, Daniel Webster." He expected a retort, but none was forthcoming. He listened as Illya's breathing evened out and deepened. "Illya, I'm serious. No sleeping."
"Vy nachinayete razdrazhat' men'a."
"Yeah? Well, sorry I'm irritating you. I'm just trying to keep you with me."
"I'm always with you, Napoleon."
"I know." Napoleon said quietly. "Just wish I took better care of you."
"Don't be an idiot." Illya shifted, settling even lower against his chest. "All right. If you don't want me to fall asleep, tell me a story."
Napoleon snickered. "What are you, a five-year-old??"
"I don't want a bedtime story, you durak, I want something to keep me awake."
Napoleon grinned. "All right. Let me see. Oh, I know. Remember that New Year's Eve we spent in Transylvania? The one with the--"
"--pack of wolves and the lady vampire? How could I forget?"
"I don't think she was a real vampire, Illya."
"Don't argue with a son of the gypsies. We know things."
"You have about as much gypsy blood as I do, Illya. Your father was a pharmacist from Minsk and your mother was descended from the Romanovs. At least that's what you told me."
"I was lying. And besides, you're not the one she bit on the neck."
"That's true. I stand corrected."
"Good." Napoleon shifted his weight and Illya poked him. "Your leg bothering you?"
"Not too much."
"Now who's lying?" Illya shot back.
"Shut up and go back to not sleeping. Hey -- remember that other New Year's, when we were stranded in Rio?"
"Only too well," Illya said, and snorted into Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon felt a strange tenderness come over him at the muffled sound. "You thought it was going to be fun, didn't you, Napoleon, what with all those scantily-clad women climbing all over you--"
"That was delightful, wasn't it?"
"--until Gervasio shot you. That's a night I won't soon forget, Napoleon." Illya's voice turned gruff. "I thought you were dying, you know."
Napoleon tightened his arm, pulling him even closer. "You kept telling me I'd be fine."
"You're quite the liar, aren't you?"
"It makes me an excellent spy."
Silence descended again.
"Napoleon," Illya said, after a while.
"Please refrain from getting shot any more."
"I. . ." For some reason Napoleon's throat felt tight. "I'll do my best."
"You'd better. Hey," Illya said. "Do you realize this is the sixth New Year's Eve we've spent together?"
"Can't be that long," Napoleon scoffed. "Let's see--Tangiers, Rio, Transylvania--"
"--Antarctica, Capetown. And Isla de Tiburones makes six."
Illya sighed deeply. "You'd think we'd get a night off, wouldn't you?" He yawned. "Mmm. That feels nice."
"What does?" Napoleon paused. He hadn't been aware he was doing it, but his fingers were combing rhythmically through Illya's hair. It was soft, a strange, gentle paradox when considered against the otherwise tough exterior of the man.
Napoleon's fingers resumed their slow passage through the silky threads. "Don't want you to fall asleep."
"We do deserve a break," Napoleon said, more to himself than to Illya. "New Year's Eve shouldn't be like this. You should have fun. You should spend the night with friends. Loved ones."
Illya murmured something against his chest.
"I am," Illya said, no louder than a whisper.
Napoleon's hand stopped moving.
Napoleon blinked against the darkness, and made his fingers begin their passage again through Illya's hair. "I won't stop, Illya," he said, feeling a little breathless.
"Good. S Novym Godom, Napoleon."
How odd it was, considering their present situation, that he couldn't seem to stop smiling. "Happy New Year, tovarishch," he said gently.
Holding Illya to him, Napoleon waited for the dawn.