There were a number of adjectives that Illya Kuryakin might apply to himself, if he were so inclined, but "emotional" was not one of them. "Intelligent," "capable," "dedicated," "relentless" though more often curt than courteous—and might admit, albeit grudgingly, that he had interludes of being proud, testy or annoyed, depending on the circumstances. THRUSH torture, for example, made him profoundly testy, but his endurance of such torture was a source of pride, as was his ability to make a clean shot at an astounding distance. As for his annoyance, well, mostly it came at the expense of his partner. At least he had the comfort of knowing he annoyed Napoleon right back.
He was vain about his hair, and sensitive about his height. He refused to bristle at insults, however, unless the insult concerned his hair.
Though some people distrusted his Soviet background, his socialistic leanings rarely manifested themselves. He was not political, nor was he particularly patriotic, either to the country of his birth or the one in which he resided. He was a citizen of the world, the passport of his personality stamped by a half-dozen nationalities. He took his tea and spoke English as if he were British, judged wines like the French, ate anything and everything with the gusto of a starving Russian peasant, and valued personal freedom like an American. He had no religion, but imagined that under different circumstances he could have been a Buddhist.
Sometimes he demonstrated a preference for animals over humans, but perhaps that was because fish and cats and horses never shot back at him. Dogs he disliked, as being more disgustingly human than humans.
For someone who spent so much time in dangerous situations with adversaries trying to kill him, he was rarely overtly angry. If asked, he would have shrugged and said that such emotional indulgence left one open to attack. If he was passionate about anything, it was about his work, and about music, piano music in particular. In the relative safety of his own triple-locked apartment, he was free to let the music of Brahms, Beethoven, Rachmaninov or Chopin—or Scott Joplin, for whom he had a secret fondness—stir him. As much as he allowed himself to be stirred.
He did not hate easily, though he had a distinct dislike of Tchaikovsky, whom he thought kitschy and overrated. He had disdain for mad scientists, neo-Nazis, fiendish despots and THRUSH agents, particularly one named Angelique, though he refused to explain why to Napoleon, who rather liked her.
As for the more pleasant matters of the heart, well, the less said, the better. Love was a non-issue for Illya Kuryakin, and desire could be sublimated. If people found him a bit chilly—more than a bit, really—it didn't disturb him at all to be thought so.
Of course, another thing he was not was introspective, so the entire issue of self-examination was at best moot. He would have snorted derisively at such an exercise. No, Illya Kuryakin was not an emotional man.
This was not an accident of genetics, a random mutation from the raw material of his Slavic forbears, a people with few reservations concerning outward shows of emotion. In fact, he hadn't been born this way. Illya worked at being emotionless, the same way he relentlessly worked at perfecting his aim, or at tinkering obsessively to improve the range of his communicator. He monitored his emotions closely. A long time ago he'd learned the importance of identifying a strong emotion, analyzing, processing and shelving it into the appropriate cubbyhole within him, before it had time to take hold. He prided himself on his success.
Of course, he never reexamined the experiences that had caused him to undertake such an unnatural subversion of his nature; he had placed those wrenching memories out of sight, inside a locked safe with armored walls, and shoved them into the darkest, deepest corner of himself.
His partner often accused him of being dour and pessimistic, but Illya preferred "pragmatic." He understood that things in general rarely went as well as expected, and even more rarely better than expected. In fact, while Napoleon was exactly what he seemed, a mostly optimistic, idealistic American who expected things to go his way, Illya pitied him for that failing. Illya knew that one day Napoleon's failure to perceive the true nature of the universe would be the death of him.
And though it was more than likely that Napoleon's failure would also be the death of Illya Kuryakin, Illya found the prospect of dying with Napoleon singularly unalarming, compared to the prospect of surviving him. When he imagined that, imagined what life would be like afterwards, he felt a rush of unexpected emotion. And so he folded, spindled and mutilated the feeling, and shelved it in a deep, dark cubbyhole, along with other matters and memories not to be looked at again.
As it happened, this precise matter was what he'd been deliberately not-thinking about all day, and determinedly not-feeling, in the aftermath of their escape from yet another THRUSH trap. Pain had been involved, physical pain of the torture variety, which had made him extremely testy while it was proceeding, but he hadn't had time to feel the usual rush of pride that followed a particularly imaginative escape. This time he and Napoleon had been separated, and Illya was enduring nearly being pulled limb from limb when there was a rattle of gunfire outside his cell. "That'll be your Mr. Solo," the THRUSH Torturer-de-jour gloated. "They caught him." The next sound Illya heard was an anguished scream so soul-wrenching that it froze his marrow. But it was the smell of burning flesh wafting through the narrow window that finally made him want to vomit. "They've dropped him into the Pit," the THRUSH said, conversationally. "How would you like your partner cooked—rare or well done?"
Everything went white for a moment.
Napoleon wasn't really dead, of course; Solo's optimism had been completely warranted on this occasion. The THRUSH torturer, who, after delivering the news had less than two minutes to live, though he did not realize it, also did not know that by the time shots were fired it was Solo who was doing the shooting, and an unfortunate THRUSH guard who'd stumbled into the Pit. But afterwards it had taken two hours for the UNCLE agents to be reunited, hours in which Illya doggedly went through the motions of making his escape, killing the torturer and destroying the rest of the THRUSH cell, contacting Headquarters and requesting a cleanup team. Two hours of staring at a smoldering corpse and trying to keep from passing out at the smell. Two hours during which he knew, but could not fully process the fact that the charring body in the Pit was his partner.
And then, suddenly, Napoleon wasn't dead, he was quite alive and almost uninjured, just a little dirty, while Illya became acutely aware of his own torn, bloodied clothing and began to wonder if his dislocated arm would ever go back in its socket. But mostly he stood gaping at his partner, while a feeling, something he couldn't put a name to, attempted to crawl out of his gut. Whatever it was, this unknown, unutterable something, it caused him to turn away until he got control of it and wrestled it out of the way again. "I see you've survived," Illya said at last, with nothing but cool detachment in his voice.
Napoleon shot him a look. "You sound disappointed."
"Well, you had the car keys," Illya said with a hint of sarcasm. "I'm not in the mood to hitchhike home."
Napoleon curled his lip at that, and went back to calming the young blonde woman he'd managed to pick up somewhere along the way, petting and stroking her until she melted under his hands and curled herself more tightly to him. Solo smiled at her, giving her a final squeeze, then looked up at Illya. Napoleon considered him for a second, his brow wrinkling. "What?"
"Nothing," Illya said. He felt tired, more than tired. "Can we go now?"
"Sure," Napoleon said, still frowning. "Are you all right?"
"Of course." Illya summoned his best and chilliest demeanor, injured arm notwithstanding. Napoleon's attention returned instantly to the young woman, and then to the helicopter overhead, as UNCLE reinforcements arrived and took over.
They'd been successful, once again.
Illya didn't dwell on their successes any more than he did their failures. One down, a thousand to go, he reminded himself every time an affair was concluded. His usual pattern at the end of a mission was to type up the report (since his partner usually managed to manipulate him into doing it anyway) go to Medical if forced to, take the rest of the day off if Waverly allowed it, and then, habitually, join Napoleon for a drink or two to unwind. Then it would be home, to listen to music: Chopin if things had gone well, Brahms if they hadn't. Rachmaninov if someone had been killed. Beethoven if he'd done the killing.
And then, also habitually, it meant falling into a deep sleep—dreamless, if he was lucky—and waking to business as usual the next day. A neat, compartmentalized, orderly, unemotional life.
Something felt different.
The helicopter ride had seemed surreal, as if he were watching the scene instead of living it: he saw himself, rumpled, dirty, withdrawn, slumping silently against the hull, and on the other side a still-dapper American soothing a Young Thing who whimpered and looked up at her rescuer with shining eyes. Illya closed his own eyes, but behind his lids lurked the image of a blackened corpse. If only he could stop his ears against the shriek that still echoed in them, or cleanse his nostrils of the smell of burning flesh--
He blinked his eyes open. Solo pulled the girl closer, and as he did so, caught his partner's eye and winked, as if to say, "I'm getting lucky tonight." The something in Illya's gut became an anti-something, a hollowness that was new and profoundly unsettling.
Oddly, once back at Headquarters, Napoleon offered to handle the paperwork. Though that made sense, of course, what with Illya's shoulder being injured, usually the senior agent wouldn't offer unless his partner were gushing blood, and even then he'd try to stall until Illya got a pill or a tourniquet or stitches and came limping back to do it. But this time Napoleon looked him in the eye and murmured, "Don't worry about it. Let's go let them take a look at you."
But then there was a flutter of femininity from around the corner as the Young Thing appeared at Napoleon's side. Solo turned to her, cooing endearments. Illya slid away down the hall.
The expected brief visit to Medical turned into hours of waiting and aching, then brief agony as his shoulder was wrenched back into its socket, followed by too much fussing over by a particularly blowsy nurse. Illya had no patience for fussing and cosseting by buxom females; that was more Napoleon's style, and Napoleon usually took the brunt of these attentions on himself when they were in Medical--
--And where was Napoleon?
Finally Medical discharged him; Waverly waved him off home. Napoleon did not materialize for the expected drink.
Illya dragged himself to Solo's office, only to find one of the secretaries busily typing out the end report from Napoleon's scribbled notes. Typical Napoleon, Illya reflected sourly. He'd managed to find a dumb blonde to do the paperwork, after all.
But where was Napoleon, anyway? They almost always had a drink together at the end of a mission, unless one of them was comatose. It was a sort of ritual. And while rituals did not resonate with Illya in a superstitious way, he found he looked forward to this one. The entire affair they'd just ended felt unfinished, though he couldn't imagine what more there was to do. The adversaries were dead or in custody. His injuries weren't serious. Both of them were alive--
A smoldering body—
He shoved the image away with some anger. Damn it. Where the hell was his partner? He really needed this drink. With Napoleon. It brought the mission to a close. It. . .
. . .it filled something within him.
What a ridiculous thought.
Waverly frowned when Illya reappeared at his door. "Mr. ah-Kuryakin, I thought you’d be on your way by now."
"Yes, sir. Have you seen Mr. Solo, by any chance?"
Waverly tightened some of the wrinkles on his face into what passed for a smile. "Why, yes, Mr. Ah…Mr. Solo had to deliver that young woman to her father. She wouldn't let anyone else take her, was becoming hysterical, for heaven's sake. These young girls. . . Well, I suppose we should expect this sort of thing when Mr. Solo is involved, eh? I imagine he'll turn up some time. He'd better, by 9:00 tomorrow morning. As must you, Mr. Kuryakin. See to that shoulder. And be here promptly, please." The audience was concluded.
"Yes sir, tomorrow," Illya said wearily.
And so he went home, where he ate something from his refrigerator, though five minutes later he couldn't have told you what it was, took off the sling and washed, put on old jeans and no shirt, because it was difficult to get anything over his arm. His apartment was too warm, anyway. He went to the stereo to find a record, but in short order rejected Brahms, Rachmaninov and Beethoven, sneered at Chopin, pushed the Mozart aside and ignored Joplin, Brubeck and his one recording by Jerry Lee Lewis. And finally, stuck in the middle, he found a dusty collection of Russian balalaika music. Why he had it, he couldn't imagine, though he fancied it might have been a gift from some American who presumed to know his tastes. In fact, no one ever seemed to know what made him tick. No one except. . .
No. No thinking on that subject. Tonight any thoughts about Napoleon, disappointment, death--
Enough. Those thoughts were folded and shoved away into another cubbyhole.
Illya slipped the record onto the turntable, and went after a drink, starting a little when the plaintive music began to fill his small apartment. Almost absently he grabbed a bottle and came back to sink onto the couch.
The music was. . .disturbing. It brought back half-remembered thoughts of his youth, of his country, thoughts faded with time and too little examination. He didn't care for those thoughts, and he didn't like the music; he wanted it to stop, but he was glued to the couch by weariness. A glass was in his hand and he was surprised to find it contained vodka. He never drank the stuff. The vodka was kept for Napoleon, who for some reason liked to sit here in Illya's apartment and drink it straight, like a Russian peasant, while the actual child of Russian peasants sat across from him and drank beer, or more likely very good Scotch. Illya often wondered why Napoleon drank his vodka; straight vodka didn't mesh with his image as a suave American agent, and he rarely ordered it in public. Perhaps he did it just to irritate his Russian partner.
The thought came that perhaps he, himself, deliberately avoided drinking it. He did not wish to consider why.
Now that he thought of it, he saw that Napoleon did a number of things to him he didn't understand. Like making up embarrassing, silly names to call him when he was in disguise. "Filthy." "Pussycat." "Little Flower." "Spike." It was an odd, out of character thing for the urbane Solo to do, to display such sophomoric humor. Funny; it only ever seemed to be directed at him. Such special attention was irritating. He didn't care for being singled out.
And then there was the way Solo sometimes spoke Russian to him. Illya didn't need to have Russian spoken to him; he was fluent in English, despite a lingering accent, and they were in America, for goodness sake. But still Solo did it, inserting Russian words at the oddest times, and Illya wondered why. It surprised him, unnerved him, made him feel--
Damn this music, anyway. He pushed himself to his feet and walked over to the stereo, intending to change the record, but instead carried on to the large window and threw it open. He leaned against the frame, breathing in the smells of the city as if they were flower-scented zephyrs. It was warm out; the breeze against his bare skin carried no chill at all.
He wasn't city-born, but after so much time spent here in the de facto capitol of the world, he'd gone native, he supposed. The dissonant sounds of New York City were part of the soundtrack of his life now. New York was unlike any other city in which he'd lived, uglier than Paris, less civilized than London or Cambridge, less cultured than Moscow. And yet, he liked it the best. Here he had privacy. Here he had true freedom from his past. Here he had no one's expectations to fulfill but his own.
He was struck by the irony, as he looked at the passing taxis and the neon and the glowing streetlights, that in this city of seven million people he was able to be so alone. Completely alone. And though usually that thought was pleasing, that was not the case tonight. Tonight he would have preferred not being alone.
He drew in a sharp breath. There was something terrifying lurking underneath that thought, something dangerous, akin to the indefinable feeling he'd had to push away that afternoon. Somehow he knew if he allowed himself to define it, quite possibly it would overwhelm him and devour him.
There was a quiet scrape behind him, and a draft of air, and his instincts reacted, even if his conscious mind did not. Adrenaline surged and with it the need to have his gun in his hand, but dammit, the gun was in its holster across the room, so he started to duck, preparing to roll behind the couch, and--
"Relax. It's just me."
Illya halted mid-crouch and straightened up, panting. Light from the window cast a soft glow on his partner's distinctive profile. "A person could get killed breaking and entering my apartment."
Napoleon snorted. "A person could. Not me. Besides, I knocked."
"Did you? I. . .didn’t hear." That was profoundly disturbing, that someone could sneak up on him in his own residence. Illya turned back to look out the window, waiting for his breath to even out, for the adrenaline to drain away. He sipped slowly at his drink.
"You're sitting in the dark."
"Am I?" He hadn't noticed.
"If you're going to be moody, couldn't you at least light some candles?"
"I don't have any candles. Don't like them."
"So much for the romanticism of the Russian soul." There was a pause, and silence except for the soft susurration of fabric against fabric as Napoleon came closer. "What brought this on?"
"What brought what on?"
"Don't act obtuse, Illya, it doesn't suit you," Solo said, a bit sharply.
"Have you come here to insult me?"
Solo's voice gentled. "You know what you are, don't you?"
"A very tired man with very little patience for riddles."
Napoleon leaned against the other side of the window. Illya could feel his gaze. "You're melancholy, that's what."
Illya made a face. "I am no such thing. That's a cultural stereotype. Next you'll be accusing me of weeping drunkenly into my vodka."
"I'm not accusing you of anything, tovarishch. Though you are drinking vodka."
"You seem to like it."
"You never pay attention to what I like."
"Because your tastes are so. . ." He let it drop, continuing only with a shrug, forgetting his shoulder. He turned away to hide the wince.
"Does that require a response?"
"I suppose not." Napoleon shifted, moving a step closer. "Okay, don't call it melancholy. What you are, moi droog, is blue. And don't snort at me; being blue is an American condition, okay? After all, we invented 'the blues.' I'm not making remarks about your cultural stereotype."
That drew his eyes back to his partner. "I am not 'blue.' I am resolutely Red, as you well know."
"I'm glad I amuse you."
"You do, sometimes, comrade. Not right now. Mind if I. . .?" Napoleon gestured. Illya followed the gesture and was surprised to find the vodka bottle on the windowsill, where he'd evidently placed it, though he had no memory of doing so. He handed it over without comment and watched as Napoleon took a swig right from the bottle. Followed the line of Napoleon's throat as his Adam's apple bobbed. Heard the subtle swallowing sounds, and Napoleon's indrawn breath as the vodka hit home. Smelled Napoleon's aftershave, faded now but still detectible, still a scent he'd recognize anywhere. Illya closed his eyes, willing away the smell of charring flesh that he could not seem to banish. There was no way he could really smell it still, he knew that. It had to be a phantom of his brain, it had to--
He realized with a start that Napoleon must have said his name more than once. "What?"
"Illya. You're sitting in the dark, drinking alone, listening to music depressing enough to make you want to slit your throat—don't interrupt me, I don't mean you're literally suicidal."
"I'm glad you realize that, because everything else you're saying is ridiculous."
"Is it?" Napoleon fixed him with an appraising look. "I confess I don't get it. We won, today, in case you didn't notice."
"I noticed. I noticed a lot of things."
Illya turned away, crossing to the couch. He snapped on a light as he went, but shadows lingered in the corners of the room. "Why are you here, Napoleon?"
"I'm worried about you."
"That's absurd. Why aren’t you with Miss Whatshername?" He sat down at one end of the couch, and went to place the glass on the end table, but missed the edge. It crashed to the wood floor and glass shards flew everywhere. "Dammit."
He started to get up, but Napoleon put up a hand. "I'll get it. You're barefoot." Solo looked at him piercingly for a moment, before crouching down. "You're not usually this clumsy."
Illya watched the dark head descend as Solo knelt in front of him to collect pieces of glass. Perhaps it was the vodka or the music or the ache in his shoulder, all three, or none of these, but all of a sudden his throat felt thick. He tried swallowing down the feeling, but it wouldn't leave him. What was this, this blue Napoleon spoke of—melancholia? Nonsense. Absurd, ridiculous, he was feeling this way because he was tired, hurt, or for no reason at all. Because Napoleon--
"Why are you here?" he demanded again, appalled at the rough sound of his voice.
"I told you," Napoleon said, intent on his task. "I was worried about you, and I—"
"—I'm not that badly hurt, Napoleon. You've seen me worse off and not followed me home."
"You make me sound like a stray dog."
"You’re no stray. You're an over-bred, high-maintenance, fancy pedigree—"
"—Gee, thanks." Napoleon picked up the last visible chunk of glass and put it with the others on the end table. "You should sweep, so you don't step on anything I missed."
When he didn't answer, Solo straightened up and stood over him, looking down at him thoughtfully for a moment, before seating himself on the cocktail table. It put their eyes at a level, and their knees close enough to touch. "I didn't say I was worried about your shoulder. I only—"
"We didn't have our drink," Illya blurted.
"We're drinking now." Napoleon took another swallow from the bottle. "Gah. You're supposed to keep this in the freezer, you know. What kind of Russian are you, anyway?"
Illya's head was beginning to ache, and his exhaustion warred with a horrible jittery feeling that suffused his chest. Just go away, Napoleon, he begged silently.
Solo put down the bottle and shifted, his body leaning in towards his partner. "The girl—I wasn't on a date with her, you know. Her father is Senator Eastland, and he demanded an accounting of how she got kidnapped and a step-by-step replay of how the rescue went down. Of course I didn’t tell him we were chasing THRUSH and found her by accident. You know these government types; I couldn't leave until he was satisfied. Then I came right over here. Because I was worried about you."
Illya just shook his head. He wanted another drink, but the way Napoleon was seated trapped him on the couch. His fingers twitched until he realized Napoleon was watching them.
"Look at you," Solo said. "You’re dropping things. You're nervous. I know you, Illya Nickovetch. You never crack. You never show anything. Something's wrong. I saw the look on your face back at the THRUSH hideout, and it's still there. I can't read you, tovarishch. Please. Puhzhalusta. Won't you tell me what's going on?"
"Go home, Napoleon. I don't need anything. I don't need. . ." You. I don’t need you.
"I think you do."
"No. Please, just go!"
"If that's what you want."
"I want—" Suddenly the music, his headache, Solo's presence were too much to bear. He pushed off the cushions, knocking Solo's legs aside, and lurched toward the stereo. The needle screeched as he pulled it roughly off the record.
Napoleon stared at him as if he'd grown another head. "Illya—"
"Why do you say Russian words to me?"
Napoleon blinked at him. "What?"
"Why do you use those words, Russian words, like puhzhalusta, khorosho, spasibo, droog, tovarishch—"
"Well, I don't know many others, and you are my friend, moi droog, so—"
"Stop it! Don't mock me."
"Illya, I wouldn't—"
"—Tell me, why do you use my full name, my patronymic, when you speak to me, if not to mock me? Or call me those ridiculous names, as if I were your pet? Why do you insist on drinking vodka when you come over here? I know you don't really like it." His voice was rising, his anger, too. "Why, Napoleon, why do you do all these things to me? Why do you even come over here? It cannot be pleasurable for you to spend time here, when you could be with one of your women, someone more sociable, someone more like you. Why don't you just leave me alone?"
"Don't you know?" Napoleon said softly. "After all this time, don't you know?"
Don’t you know. . .? It was as if Illya had crossed the border into a land where he could not speak the language, nor understand the customs. He felt exposed; he wanted to duck and cover, grab for a weapon. But there was no weapon for this encroaching terror, none that he was trained to use.
"Illya?" Napoleon got up and crossed to him, put a hand on his good shoulder and shook him lightly. "You with me?"
"I don't know, Napoleon. I don't understand what this is. I--can't interpret. . ."
"Sure you can, if you'll let yourself."
'No, I. . ." He cleared his throat. "I haven't the. . .facility for feelings you have."
His head jerked up in surprise at the vulgarity. Napoleon's other hand, dry and warm, clasped him lightly on the neck. "You have a facility for everything, Illya. Don't pretend you don't understand. Don't pretend you don't feel, because I don't believe that for a moment."
He shook his head, fighting the growing panic. "You don't know—"
Illya jerked against the hands that held him. "What if I don't want to?"
"Ah," Solo said. "Finally the truth. You don't want to feel anything. Why is that?"
"I don't—" He shook his head again and took in a shuddering breath. The image was in his mind's eye again, the acrid smoke in his sinuses. "I don't know."
"Now you're lying."
His hand itched to ball into a fist, his fist to strike out and punch the face in front of him. Napoleon was trying to force something out of him, and his body didn’t want to yield it up any more than it would want to give up his liver. "Why don't you understand?" he said bitterly.
"Because you won't tell me anything!" Solo shot back.
No truth serum he'd ever been subjected to had felt this devastating. He didn't want to talk, hadn't thought he could talk, but horrifyingly, words were coming out anyway. "He told me, they told me. Napoleon. It was you. I thought it was you. Today. In the. . ." He swallowed the bile that suddenly rose. "The fire."
Napoleon's face changed, sudden understanding dawning. "You thought I fell in that. . ."
"The Pit. He said."
"The smell of burning. It was—" Illya swallowed again. Too much. It was too much, too overwhelming. He could no longer stop his hands from coiling into fists, or his entire body from going rigid. He kept swallowing, convulsively, kept holding it in, but it hurt, how it hurt to breathe! He fought to make himself not feel, and it was more painful than THRUSH torture to hold it in, but the pain of controlling it was better than letting it out, wasn't it? He thought his head would burst with the effort, or his chest. He tried to pull away, but Napoleon grabbed his good arm and held on even as he attempted to wrest himself from the iron grip. "Let go of me!"
"No. Illya. Come on. Stop running."
His right hand drew back of its own volition, and was connecting with Napoleon's jaw before he had time to comprehend his own actions. Pain shot up his arm, into his damaged shoulder, and his vision went dark with the shock.
Solo staggered back with the force of the blow. "—the hell?!"
"Keep away from me!" Illya swayed on his feet; his hand hurt, his shoulder was in agony. And still the band across his chest did not loosen. "Just keep away, Napoleon."
"No. I won't."
Napoleon sprang at him so suddenly he didn't have time to react. The two of them bounced off the back of the couch to land with a heavy thud on the hard floor, Solo turning at the last instant to absorb the blow. The crash knocked Illya's breath out of him, but he struggled anyway, hampered by his injured shoulder. Finally Solo rolled across him, using his weight as a weapon, pinning his arms at the wrists.
"For God's sake, Illya," Solo rasped, "Cut it out!" Napoleon's hair was ruffled, his breath labored. "Look at yourself, look what you're doing to yourself."
"I can't stop it—" he panted. Something within was falling, breaking, smashing into glass shards, and he couldn't put it back together, he couldn't hold it. "I can't, I couldn't, I couldn't. . ."
"What is it? What couldn't you do?"
"Save you. I couldn't save you, Napoleon!"
Solo's face registered shock. "Illya, look at me, I'm fine, it wasn't me. It wasn't me."
"It would have been. It could have. It will be, someday—"
"You would have. If it had been me, you would have found a way, Illya. I know you."
He went limp. "You. Don't know me."
"Sure I do." Napoleon released his grip on but stayed where he was, his fingers on Illya's wrists, their chests pressed together. "I know you as well as I know myself. I know you care for me. You care very deeply."
Illya froze, his eyes open and his mouth, too, as if he were about to say something in protest, but nothing came out. Inside him, things fluttered, shifted, tore apart.
"Illya," Napoleon said, his voice terrifying in its tenderness. "I know you do. Why else would you be so afraid?"
"Like hell." Napoleon smiled at him, a small, understanding smile. "Don't worry. It'll pass. It did for me."
"Pass. . ." His mind seemingly had ceased all functions.
"Sure. The fear, I mean. Not the. . .caring. That stays."
Illya stared at him.
"What, you don't believe I care about you?" Napoleon chided, indignantly.
"I. . ." Though his higher brain functions seemed to have shut down, one look at Napoleon's face was enough. "I believe you."
"That's a relief." The warmth of Napoleon's voice matched his hand, as clever fingers traced the angles of Illya's face. "I guess I didn't realize how painful you'd find it."
Illya's insides clenched in desperation. He, who spoke a dozen languages, found he had no words at all for the emotions he was experiencing, but the feeling, whatever it was, was relentless, and despite how tightly he clamped his jaw, a quiet little moan escaped him.
Napoleon grinned at him. "Well, that's a start, anyway. The rest of it will come to you."
Napoleon's sly grin became a smile, not a smile of the kind he bestowed upon Young Things, or besotted secretaries, or even Angelique. A real smile, so bright it dispelled the shadows in the room, and sought to light up the dark, armored chambers of Illya's besieged heart.
It hurt. The light hurt. He was blinded by it.
He was still blinking when Napoleon leaned closer and touched his lips to his cheek.
It wasn't much, as kisses go, merely a seal on the moment, chaste and kind, not romantic in the least. And yet it seared his flesh, branding him with Napoleon's mark. He couldn't bear it, he wasn't going to be able to bear it. "Napoleon," he breathed, overwhelmed. "Stop, please."
"I'm sorry," Solo said, contritely. "Am I hurting you?" Napoleon shifted slightly, to move more weight onto his own arms.
Yes, Illya's inner voice screamed, yes, you are hurting me. I cannot bear this.
Aloud, he merely said, "Please let me up."
Napoleon examined him critically for a moment before sighing and tugging on his wrist. "All right, partner mine, let's get up. My knees are killing me, anyway."
With Napoleon's weight off him, Illya tried to push off the floor, only to discover his shoulder had finally had enough. Napoleon reached down and helped him to his feet, holding him steady as he swayed. The pain of his shoulder had turned into a dull ache that throbbed in counterpoint to his pulse. Napoleon caught his eye and Illya looked away.
"Poor Illya. You really didn't know, did you?" Solo said, reaching over, his thumb smoothing the deep crease between Illya's brows. "Don't hurt yourself thinking—it's not all that complicated, really."
"For you," Illya managed. His throat was closing again.
"Nah," Solo said. "For everyone." He leaned in closer, running the same thumb underneath Illya's eyes. "Hey. Come on, now. It's okay."
"Is it?" he asked miserably.
"More than okay. Trust me."
"I'll try," was all he would allow.
"Why the hell do you have to be so difficult?" Napoleon said with affection, his arms pulling the two of them together, his broad hand rubbing circles on the cool skin of Illya's back. "Damned crazy Russian."
There was no answer required for that, thankfully, so Illya merely closed his eyes and let Solo's other hand comb through his hair. It was a soothing, gentling gesture, and he let it lull him from his thoughts.
"Hey," Solo said, fingering the blond strands and tucking them behind Illya's ear. "Don't you think it's time you had a haircut?"
"I like it," Illya murmured out of habit, but his hands tightened in Napoleon's jacket. He felt bone-weary.
There was a smile in Napoleon's voice. "That's my Illya." My Illya. "Come on, sit down, before you pull us both down." He maneuvered both of them around the couch and sat them down, still stroking Illya's hair. "Don't worry, tovarishch," Solo said, his voice like warm chocolate. "You'll be all right."
Illya nodded against Solo's shoulder, feeling the heavy wave of exhaustion drag him under. But inside a voice was protesting that no, he wasn't all right, and might never be again.
Napoleon crossed behind the couch and its slumbering occupant and went into the tiny kitchen to start coffee. The process underway, he made himself at home in Illya's bathroom to become as presentable as was humanly possible after sleeping in his clothes all night.
He arched his back to unkink the stiffness there, and had the thought that his partner was overdue for a new mattress; the one in the bedroom sagged so badly that two people sharing it would be fated to roll together into the middle. Not that Illya had been in the bed with him. Once his exhausted partner had conked out on the couch, Napoleon had been reluctant to disturb him. It'd seemed a waste for the bed to remain unoccupied, however, so he'd loosened his tie, taken off his jacket and shoes and made his way into Illya's bedroom. This morning, however, his back was protesting loudly that he'd gotten the worst of the bargain.
Face washed, mouth rinsed with a particularly bracing mouthwash he found under the sink, he walked quietly back into the bedroom for his jacket and pulled out the communicator.
There was movement on the couch by the time Napoleon came back. He perched on the single stool at the kitchen counter and watched the straw-colored head rise and turn towards the aroma of perked coffee.
"Napoleon?" Illya said, blinking.
He raised his cup in salute. "Hi." If he'd hoped for a smile or any sort of friendly banter in return, he was fated to be disappointed. Illya frowned, the crease Napoleon had tried to erase the night before back in full force on his forehead. "Morning," Napoleon tried again, keeping his tone light. "Care for coffee?"
"Mm, yes, please." Illya pushed aside the blanket Napoleon had placed over him and levered himself off the couch with a grunt, rubbing his right shoulder absently. He scrubbed a hand over his face and shot Napoleon a wary look. "You stayed here?"
"Sure. You were sacked out and frankly I was too tired to go home. Hope you don't mind that I took the bed. You weren't using it."
"No, no, of course not," Illya murmured. "Coffee?"
Napoleon dropped two sugar cubes into a cup of the dark brew and handed it over, moving slightly into Illya's personal space. "Are you, are you feeling all right this morning?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
He knew that dismissive tone, and was in no mood for it, not after the scene they'd had less than ten hours before. "Well, now. Last night was pretty tough on you."
The glacier-blue eyes slid away from his, but not before Napoleon saw something flash in them, something that made him think of an animal pinned by oncoming headlights. All Illya said, however, was, "I'm fine."
Frustrated, Napoleon shook his head. "Listen, Illya, maybe we should talk about—"
"—It's late," Illya said hurriedly, squinting at the kitchen clock. "You should have awakened me. Waverly said 9:00 and it's nearly that."
"Relax. I talked to him and pushed the meeting back a couple of hours. But don't bother getting up if you don't want to. I convinced him you shouldn't come in at all."
Illya's head snapped up, his face angry. "That's ridiculous! Why on earth would you tell him that?" He didn't wait for an answer, but took the coffee cup with him and stormed into the bathroom.
Napoleon listened to the door slam and poured out the dregs of his cup into the sink, scowling at the grounds as they circled the drain and disappeared. Well, this wasn't going well at all. A lot had been said last night, mostly by him, but so much more needed to be aired. It had become clear last night that his partner was struggling with his feelings, and for a brief moment Napoleon had thought—well, hoped—that Illya would finally uncork his own personal emotional bottle. It was a vain hope, evidently, if Illya's morning behavior were to be believed. Clearly he'd decided to retreat back into himself.
Well, he was damned if he was going to let that happen.
He crossed the short distance to the bathroom door. "Illya?" The shower was running. Napoleon flattened his hand on the door, resting his forehead next to it, as if somehow the barrier could be transcended by pure thought. Please, Illya, he projected mentally through the door, but of course there was no response. He sighed, and pitched his voice loud enough to be heard over the rush of water. "Listen, I'm going to go catch a shower at Headquarters, but we should talk later. If you do insist on going in, I'll see you in Waverly's office, all right?"
No answer. He leaned against the door, debating whether to open it, but decided invading Illya's privacy would serve only to upset him further. "All right, then," he said, mostly to himself. He let himself out quietly, snapping the locks shut as he went.
If Illya Kuryakin's image was one of cool containment, Napoleon Solo's stock in trade was sizzling charm. Among his colleagues, and especially among the women of UNCLE, he had a reputation as something of a hedonist, which he'd be the first to admit was true. He was a sensualist, whether enjoying a fine wine, a fine meal, or a fine bout of lovemaking. Next to his skin there was nothing he liked better than silk or cashmere, or better still, the smoothness of a naked woman.
That didn’t mean he didn’t sometimes entertain other thoughts. Or indulge in different sorts of sensual pleasures altogether. Addictive drugs, bestiality and pain-games excepted, his tastes ran a rather large gamut, and he would try anything at least once. Most more than once, if opportunities presented themselves. In his working life, Napoleon was often pushed to his physical limits; perhaps it was inevitable that when off-duty his personal motto, bluntly put, was "if it feels good, do it."
At the moment he was luxuriating in the feel of hot water cascading over him, which was very good, indeed, at erasing the kinks put there by Illya's lumpy mattress. The UNCLE gym was fairly quiet at the moment, and other than those agents on their way to or from physical training he had the place to himself. So he lingered in the shower, turning and bending under the hot stream, letting his mind take him where it would.
Where it was taking him right now was Illya.
Funny that the longest relationship of any kind he'd had was with his current partner. Women came and went in his life—he smiled at the double entendre—but never, or rarely ever, had he enjoyed a relationship that he treasured so dearly that he wanted to remain in it forever. Until this one, that is. He'd been paired with other agents before, but none had clicked with him the way Illya Kuryakin had. And though he'd entered into a working relationship with the prickly Russian, it had developed rather quickly into trust and friendship. It really was funny, wasn't it, that the person he was most comfortable with in the entire world was so nearly his polar opposite in temperament.
Trust. Friendship. What else did he want from Illya? He'd realized from their first meeting that Illya was attractive, despite his almost permanent glower. Napoleon, with his innate appreciation of beauty, found Illya handsome in an unusual sort of way. Still, it had taken a very long time to admit his personal attraction to his edgy partner. Even so, the attraction had never crossed over into intense desire.
Perhaps that had something to do with Illya's coolness, the limits he imposed on his own participation in the relationship. They were friends, all right, always there for each other when a rescue was needed, forever catching each other's eye in the midst of some dire circumstance and knowing they were on the same wavelength. Illya had been there to support him, to lend a hand or a shoulder in Napoleon's rare times of emotional distress, like that wrenching Terbuf affair. But it was a one-sided relationship; the situation had never been reversed, for Illya had never required anything of him beyond a clever escape plan or a drink after work. Even as Napoleon's interest grew, and Illya, despite himself, wormed his way into his affections, the Russian remained opaque to his scrutiny. Through their close association, Napoleon had begun to understand what went on in Illya's brain. He had not a clue as to what went on in Illya's heart.
Last night, however, something profound had happened. Last night he'd thought the two of them were communicating in a way he'd always hoped to reach with his partner, but had never really expected to achieve. Something had gotten to Illya, and he—tough, cool Illya—seemed about to lay his emotions bare. There was a vulnerability bleeding from around the edges of Illya's chilly reserve that had allowed Napoleon to admit, finally, how deeply he cared for his partner, and to say so not only to himself but to Illya as well.
Of course, he hadn't really intended to say he knew Illya cared for him, or to tell him he felt the same way. He'd wanted to say another word entirely. A word that surprised and scared him, and would have terrified his partner.
He'd wanted to say he knew he was loved, and that he loved in return.
Even before last night he'd known he loved his partner, in some way. But until last night his affection for Illya had existed in fairly platonic terms. Now? Well, the memory of Illya's body rubbing against his was still vivid twelve hours later. Desire had a hold on him now; enticing new possibilities had started to occur to him.
Surely it hadn't been his imagination that Illya might, actually, in some way, love him, too. Maybe not in the way he himself was contemplating, but then he'd always been more rooted in sexuality than his partner. Thinking through what Illya had said and done the previous evening, sentence by sentence, moment by moment, Napoleon failed to see where he'd gone astray in his conclusions.
He sighed, his mouth quirking up with amusement. Illya was a tough cookie. No doubt he'd require a little more work before he'd even say he liked Napoleon. A relapse like the one he seemed to be having this morning was not only understandable, but probably inevitable. Well, no matter what reserve his partner possessed in that bottled-up heart of his, Napoleon was determined to pry his emotions out of him, because he couldn't help but feel the two of them were on the brink of something life-changing.
Just the thought that someday, perhaps, he might find the two of them skin to skin in a far more comfortable bed than the one he'd slept in last night—well, that sent a bolt of warmth clear through him. He let his mind wander: Illya, that compact, muscular body next to his. Both of them naked. The sex would be incredible--
--Unsurprisingly, that last thought caused Napoleon's penis to jerk. Too bad there wasn't enough privacy to do anything about that. "Down boy," Napoleon murmured, hiding a smile. No need to rush things. If he wanted Illya, he'd get him, eventually. Of that he was confident.
He took his time with the rest of his grooming, enjoying his shave, combing his hair just so. He dressed himself with care in a neat blue suit he kept in case of sartorial emergencies. Thus attired, he strolled nonchalantly to Waverly's office, pausing to flirt with Lisa Rogers on the way. At precisely 10:59 he opened the door and let himself in.
"Ah, Mr. Solo. I trust these extra hours afforded you a bit more rest?"
"Why, ah, yes, sir," Solo answered, as always slightly caught off guard by Waverly's possibly sincere, possibly sarcastic remarks. "Thank you so much for pushing back the meeting."
"Not at all, Mr. Solo. I think yesterday wrapped itself up quite neatly, wouldn't you say?" Waverly lifted the report the lovely Mitzi had so carefully typed for Napoleon the afternoon before. "I assume you've read your report, now that Miss Hollinger has so kindly relieved you and your partner of the duty of preparing it."
Well, there was no mistaking the sarcasm there, but Napoleon let it pass and merely smiled. "Yes, sir. I have read it."
"Good. Let's leave that then, shall we, and proceed to the next affair? You'll see before you—"
"Excuse me, sir," Solo said, looking towards the door. "I think Illya is coming in after all. Should we wait for—"
"Mr. Kuryakin has already been and gone, Mr. Solo." Waverly reached for his humidor and pipe. "Now, as I was saying—"
"Gone, sir?" Napoleon gaped at his superior. "Gone where?"
"Gone on an assignment, if you must know. He arrived shortly after nine thirty and will be on a plane to the Middle East in about. . ." He consulted his pocket watch. "Well, as of about a quarter hour ago."
"But, but—" Napoleon's brain felt uncommonly sluggish. "Why? Why would he go? And his shoulder--it was dislocated. He can't—"
"He can, and he has, Mr. Solo. It's merely an observational posting. We believe THRUSH has an experimental lab in the desert near Aqaba. Mr. Kuryakin was quite eager to get out in the field, to get back on the horse, as it were. But none of this is your concern. I have something for you that may be a bit dull for someone of your temperament, Mr. Solo, but I trust you will persevere nonetheless. You may ask Miss Hollinger from Research, who assisted you with the typing of that report, to help you with this as well. You'll see before you some recently purloined THRUSH records. I have a mind to discover what happens to THRUSH agents when they retire. . ."
Napoleon listened with only a part of his brain as Waverly outlined the project he was to undertake. The rest of his mind was occupied with his partner and with what possibly could have possessed Illya to leave so suddenly. He didn't want to think of Illya going to such lengths to avoid him, but the suspicion that that's what he'd done gnawed at and bedeviled him.
Later, as he sat in an office going through reams of papers, completely oblivious to the voluptuous charms of Mitzi Hollinger, only a small part of him considered the problem on which he was working. The major part of his brain was considering the Illya Problem.
Forty-eight hours later, when Waverly announced soberly that Mr. Kuryakin was missing and presumed killed or captured, Napoleon Solo felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his world.
The hazy redness beyond his eyelids became a blinding glare as he attempted to open them. He found himself on his back, looking straight up into the sun, and squinted his eyes shut again. His skin felt like it was burning, and there was sand in his mouth. And there was a horrible pain like dull razor blades stabbing his left leg. He reached down and felt wetness on his thigh.
Something swatted his hand away sharply. "Ah, ah, ah, no touch. You make bleed again."
The voice was harsh and female, and spoke English with a dreadful accent. He squinted again and found the voice belonged to a swarthy Arab woman hovering over him, her musky perfume overwhelming in the heat. Whoever she was, she was doing something to his leg that increased his pain immeasurably, and he cried out for her to stop. The wet heat on his leg grew as more blood welled out of the wound, and he struggled to reach her, to make her stop.
Someone else caught his wrists with a forceful grip, and he stopped, his muscle memory recalling the sensation. Napoleon! The name reverberated inside his skull. But when he looked, the hands gripping him were dark and callused, not smoothly manicured like Solo's, the seamed face that of a middle-aged Bedouin, not that of his partner. Illya lay back, feeling fresh sweat collect under his arms and bead up on his forehead. He remembered, now, where he was, and what had happened, knew that he'd been taken prisoner and that it was the woman's knife that had struck him. Knew Napoleon was half a world away.
Perhaps, he thought, with a mixture of sadness and relief, he would never see Napoleon again. And at that thought he was filled with a devastating sense of loss, an ache less sharp than the throbbing agony of his leg, yet somehow infinitely worse.
He clenched his jaw and willed his mind away from Napoleon, back to the piercing pain in his leg, then took a deep breath and purposely bent his knee. The intensity of the pain increased in a rush of nausea and white heat, blotting out all feelings except those of physical duress, and strangely, he felt relief, even as he let himself lose the battle with unconsciousness. Brightness faded; all that remained was a darkness tinged with red.
There was red in front of his eyes again when he next opened them, but it was a cooler red, and his body felt cooler, too. Above him the setting sun filtered through a roof of colorful stripes, a tent billowing gently in the sultry desert breeze. He raised a hand to his eyes. His fingertips were rusty with dried blood.
He was thirsty and vaguely queasy, drained to the point of limpness by his ordeal and by the woman's crude attempts to minister to him. Despite all that, it seemed as if a calm had descended over his soul. Somewhere along the way he had absorbed a lesson, a lesson bitter as bile and sharp as the curved blade that had pierced his flesh, but instructive nonetheless. It seemed to him now as clear as a mathematical formula: pain obliterates pain.
In the days that followed, as he pursued the objective of his mission, Illya kept that thought before him, until, like a red-hot poker, it branded itself on his soul.
In New York Napoleon chafed at the chains that kept him bound to his desk, and snapped at everyone within the sound of his voice.
When his research took him into THRUSH headquarters he could barely keep from killing everyone who crossed his path, including the aging THRUSH accountant he'd been ordered to collect.
Finally, when the resulting contretemps led him at last to the very place in which his partner had disappeared, he began to breathe freely again. Now he was free to take action, to discover what had happened to Illya. The world at last began to assume solidity beneath him.
And yet he very nearly missed Illya altogether. As a throng of enraged Bedouins descended upon the secret THRUSH lab, amidst bloodthirsty cries and calls for revenge, Napoleon saw a mass of flowing robes and angry faces, and barely registered the white-robed figure leading them. But something in the man's posture struck him as familiar, despite an off-balance, lurching gait. Napoleon felt a sudden surge of adrenalin in his veins. "Illya!"
The man stopped short, and held still a moment before turning. The desert sun had burnished the face within the white burnoose to a reddish tan, but there was no mistaking the intensity of the blue gaze.
"Illya," Napoleon repeated, relieved beyond imagining. But when there was no response except a slight tightening of expression, anything he would have added, any urge he might have had to embrace his partner, quickly dissolved to dust. Illya quite simply did not look happy to see him.
Napoleon Solo, suave spy who never lacked for words, found himself fumbling for something to say. Anything.
What came out of his mouth appalled him. "Wish I had a dress like that," he said.
Illya's eyes glittered at him, and he felt instantly contrite. Illya's mouth was working, but no words were coming out. Napoleon watched mutely as Illya reached down and clutched his left thigh tightly, his knuckles whitening as he applied pressure, his eyes closing, his face contorting in an expression of acute suffering.
"Illya," Napoleon said, alarmed, but further words were prevented as the Russian opened his eyes. His face was expressionless once again. Then he turned and swiftly disappeared down the corridor where the band of Arabs had gone, leaving Napoleon to stare after him, and to curse himself briefly and colorfully, before taking off after his stubborn, intractable, perplexing partner.
The disjunction between them continued throughout the mop-up phase. Napoleon found himself growing angry, even though he knew his anger was merely frustration and worry. For his part, Illya did nothing but answer in terse sentences. There was no familiar banter between them. Napoleon found himself wishing he were once again the butt of Illya's sarcastic wit—anything would have been preferable to their near-total lack of interaction. The job got done, but the whole balance of their working relationship felt off.
On the plane home Illya slept, or pretended to. Napoleon stewed, and sulked and fretted.
The mission was a success. Everything else was a disaster.
In his dream, Illya is flying over a white landscape. The ground cover is smooth, unbroken, no footprints to mar the pristine snow. He is cold, and feels the whip of wind as it stirs his hair, but he is intent on his destination and ignores his discomfort. His skin burns as the air rushes past, his eyes tear. But his destination is near; he senses that, although he can no longer see where he is going.
He is standing in a river, but his clothes are dry, and he realizes that is because the river is frozen over, and he is frozen within it. Figures in old-fashioned clothing--—muffs, furs, sable hats—skate around him, ignoring him, although he has started waving his hands at them, calling their names. They circle him, puzzled smiles on their faces, for he seems to be speaking in a language they do not understand. It is imperative he make himself understood, because only he knows that around the next bend, the river drops off in a bottomless waterfall. The figures, the family, grow smaller as they skate away from him, towards their destruction. He is hoarse with shouting after them.
He is shouting through the smoke, and his pants leg is aflame, but he ignores it as he presses on towards the burning house. It is a small house, old, made of wood, alone in the snowy landscape. It cannot last through such a holocaust. Obstacles block his way: fire trucks, barbed wire, broken furniture. The smell of candles accosts him; before him, in a pit filled with melted wax, something bobs to the surface of the oily liquid, something that once was alive, that fixes on him with dead eyes and raises a charred hand in salute. For a moment he cannot look away. He runs from the body, the bodies, shouting for help, but there are no firemen, no soldiers, none of his comrades to help him, only he, alone. But no matter how many feet of pockmarked terrain he covers, he never gets any closer. The building, now glass and steel, recedes before him—the ground sucks at his feet, slowing him until he can barely move at all. He calls, desperately, his heart thudding in his chest, hoping to hear a voice in response, one voice, but there is nothing but an agonized scream from within the collapsing building, and he screams a name, but it is swallowed up by the roar of the fire, the scream of arcing munitions, sirens shrieking in his ears--
Illya woke to the sound of distant fire trucks, and to the cold clamminess of his own sweat-soaked skin. He lay back against the dampened sheets while his brain righted itself and the sounds of the city became familiar. New York. He was in New York, in his own apartment.
He was naked except for the bandage on his thigh, the souvenir of the mission he'd finished four days ago. It still ached, the wound, and the healing was not helped by the cavalier way he treated his injury. A shiver passed through him. Though it had been warm when he'd thrown himself on the bed in jet-lagged exhaustion, during the night the weather had started to change. The breeze from the open window was sharpening now, and he fought another shiver as he stumbled to his feet and limped across the room. The cold air washed over him, stirring a memory of winter, of
. . .a white landscape. . .no footprints mar the pristine snow. . .
Bits of his dream flitted through his mind, too elusive to catch, leaving behind only an impression of loss. Illya stood at the window and stared at the scene below, as he had done so many nights, as he had that night, the night everything changed.
And that made him think of Napoleon, of their frantic struggle on the floor behind the couch, which still was slightly out of its normal position. No doubt there was still glass on the floor somewhere. There was a fine sheen of dust over everything, and Napoleon's coffee cup still lay in the sink. He hadn't touched anything since he'd been back. The remnants of take-out food littered his kitchen and coffee table, but in truth, he hadn't eaten much, though he'd rediscovered the obliterating qualities of whiskey. Other than that, all he'd done was sleep. Or try to.
Damn him, damn Napoleon! What does he want from me? Illya thought angrily, but right behind that thought was another, What do I want of him? And another—What do I feel for him?
But the question was a disingenuous. All of it was a lie, because he knew, knew to his core what he felt, and what he wanted from Napoleon. The knowledge churned in him, burning him from the inside out. He closed his hand until his nails dug into his palm, pressed them there, feeling the pain—I will not feel, I cannot—willing his panic to pass, but it didn't, it wasn't enough -- he'll die, they die-- His fist flew out and slammed into the wall.
His knuckles ached. There was a red smear across the wall.
But he was in control again.
"Just move!" Illya shouted, flinging both of them against the far wall. The force of Illya's shove pushed Napoleon's breath out of him, but he didn't have time to protest, because bullets were slamming into the wall beside him and Illya was dragging him further into the alleyway.
"Where?" he managed to pant.
"Above. Eleven and two o'clock." Illya gasped back. His gun was out of his holster, and Napoleon caught a glimpse of the bandages covering Illya's knuckles. The white gauze was gray now, the edges frayed, though it'd only been twelve hours since Napoleon first saw them and wondered what in hell Illya had done to himself now.
There hadn't been time to ask in Waverly's office, or afterwards, with the rush to get to the plane. Briefing had taken place on board the UNCLE jet to Puerto Caldo, leaving no time for small talk between them. Besides, Napoleon thought with annoyance, all Illya would have said was that he was "all right."
Frankly, Napoleon was getting sick of hearing that, because quite clearly his partner was not all right. Illya was pulling further and further away from him, and he was about to tear his hair out trying to figure out why.
But recriminations and/or confrontations would have to wait. Right now the two of them were pressed back into the shadows of a dead-end alley with THRUSH gunmen shooting at them from a much better position than the two agents enjoyed. Napoleon hoisted his own gun and nudged Illya in the ribs. "Left one," he said. "I might be able to—"
Illya shook his head. "Angle's wrong." He let out a loud breath. "All they must do is wait."
"I know." Napoleon shrugged. "Ideas?"
Illya bit his lip and narrowed his eyes. Then without another word, he launched himself out of the shadows into a patch of sunlight. Into the line of fire.
Adrenalin stabbed through Napoleon's chest, but there was no time to think as things began to happen in a blur. The shooter on the left leaned over the edge of the building. Illya dropped and rolled. Shots rang out. Napoleon felt the Walther kick in his hand, and realized he'd fired. There was a moment of stillness that stretched into infinity, and then the THRUSH on the left somersaulted off the roof onto the dusty street.
Napoleon stepped forward, his mind trying to catch up with his reflexes. Illya! You better not be dead or I'll kill you--
The shout came from the shadows where Illya had rolled, followed by the bark of gunfire. There was a muffled groan above and behind him, and Napoleon turned in time to see the other THRUSH take a header off the roof and crash into the alley.
Illya stepped out of the shadows, gun still drawn. He crossed to the THRUSH agents, toeing each sharply with his boot, satisfying himself that they were dead. Then he whirled on his partner. "What were you doing, just standing there?"
Napoleon shouted back at him. "What was I doing? Are you nuts? What were you doing, running into the open?"
"Trying to draw their fire, of course!" Illya barked. "Did you see any other options?"
"Yes, dammit! I was working on a plan—"
"Not fast enough." Illya knelt to pick through the THRUSH's pockets. "You asked for ideas. I had one."
"Oh, really? Well your idea, comrade, was pretty stupid."
"It seems to have done the trick," Illya said, laying on the sarcasm.
"You could have been killed."
Maddeningly, the Russian merely shrugged. He started to move toward the other THRUSH.
Napoleon felt fury boil up inside him. He grabbed his partner as he passed, wrapping his hand around the other man's biceps, and yanked him around until they were face to face. "You are not allowed to make that decision," he hissed.
"It's my life," Illya replied, his tone pure ice.
"No it isn't." He wasn't going to put up with that crap, not from Illya. "The next time someone has to make a move like that, if someone has to, I get to decide who it will be. Maybe I'll decide it's me."
"That," Illya snapped, "Is not an option."
What the hell? "Don't forget which one of us is the senior agent, tovarishch," Napoleon snarled back.
Illya's glare was sharp enough to flay skin. "Let go of me," he said, in a quiet tone that carried more menace than an angry roar.
"This isn't over," Napoleon said, releasing him. Illya turned away without another word, heading out of the alley towards the safe house that had been their destination before the ambush.
Napoleon watched him, a shiver trickling down his spine. Whatever was wrong with Illya needed to stop now. If it didn’t get resolved, he was going to find himself with one dead Russian on his hands.
His hands. . .
It was only then that Napoleon noticed his fingers were greasy with blood.
"Shit," Napoleon swore under his breath, and took off after his partner.
There were no more incidents between the alley and the safe house, tucked into a back street of Puerto Caldo's poorest neighborhood, which was just as well, because Napoleon wasn't really paying attention to his surroundings. He'd worked himself up to a head of steam, equal parts anger and worry, by the time he pushed through the door.
Illya had his shirt off, the first aid kit open, and was wrapping a bandage around his upper arm in front of the bureau mirror, but had his gun in his hand, pointing at the door before Napoleon closed it behind him. "Forget the signal?" Illya growled.
"Fuck the signal."
Illya stopped in the action of reholstering his gun and caught Solo's eye in the mirror. He shook his head and went back to bandaging his arm.
Napoleon stepped in to him, trying to keep control of his temper. "How bad?"
"Nothing. A scratch."
Solo snorted derisively and Illya rounded on him. "I don't know what's bothering you, Napoleon, but I assure you I was simply grazed. You don't believe me? See for yourself!" Illya ripped off the bandages, revealing an ugly but shallow gouge across his biceps, and flung the bunched-up gauze savagely in Napoleon's direction. "Satisfied?"
Napoleon didn't flinch as the missile sailed by his head. "No, I'm not satisfied. I'm not satisfied at all."
Illya said nothing, but merely picked up the roll of gauze to begin again. Napoleon slapped it out of his hand. "Napoleon!"
He spun Illya around, ignoring the new wound. "I've had it with you, tovarishch. I can't forever be trailing after you, asking you what in hell's got into you, trying to figure out what's wrong—"
"Stop doing it, then."
"No. I won't. I can't. Illya, I'm your partner—"
"That can be changed," Illya said flatly.
Napoleon stepped back and took a long breath. Illya was looking at him, but his eyes were shielded, opaque. "No. It can't."
"Waverly may disagree with you."
"Waverly will never hear about this. We're going to hash this out now."
"There is nothing to 'hash,' as you call it. Perhaps we've outlasted our partnership."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"I expect nothing."
"Maybe not, but I do. I expect a partner who communicates with me, who doesn't stonewall me and go off half-cocked all the time, trying to get himself killed. Are you trying to get killed, Illya?"
"I don't believe you."
"Suit yourself." Illya folded his arms and leaned against the wardrobe.
Infuriating son of a bitch! Napoleon took several calming breaths before he tried again. "This is about that night, isn't it? Things haven't been right between us since then. Look, I'm willing to say it's my fault. I shouldn't have pushed you, shouldn’t have said those things to you. You're a private man and I pushed too hard—"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Illya said, but Napoleon could see how rigidly his back stiffened.
"Yes, you do. I pushed you to open up, and you weren't ready. I tried to make you admit things that you probably don't feel at all. I'm sorry if I misread you."
"Misread," Illya said in a dull voice. His eyes seemed more veiled than before.
Napoleon closed his eyes in frustration, but was not yet ready to admit defeat. "I tried to make you open up and you hated it. For all I know you hate me, too, now. Illya, I don't mind if you don't care about me, okay, if that's how it is, I'll live with it, but we can still be partners, can't we? I don't want to lose you as a friend, just because I embarrassed you—"
The change in Illya's demeanor was so sudden that Napoleon found himself taking a step back. The intense blue eyes turned from impenetrable to piercing in the space of a heartbeat, and he began to tremble, vibrating like a taut string. Whether the tremors were from fury or another emotion, Solo would have been hard pressed to say. "You think this is because you embarrassed me?"
Napoleon approached him warily, as one might a rabid dog. "What is it, then? Punishment for my transgression, my temerity of trying to get inside that barbed wire that surrounds you? You have to tell me, because I can't read your mind. Not any more."
"You flatter yourself, Napoleon. You never could read my mind, any more than you can understand my feelings—" The word seemed to stick in his throat, blocking it, but he went on, his voice rising. "You don't know, you can't begin to know me. Not what I think," Illya's face contorted, as if the words were razor blades ripping him apart, "And certainly not what I feel!"
"Then enlighten me!" Napoleon grabbed him by the shoulders. "All I see is someone who doesn't care about his life anymore, who looks like he's ready to throw it away for nothing—"
"—Not for nothing, Napoleon!"
"Then what are you doing? I heard you showed up at the gym two days ago against Medical's orders, and let yourself get smacked around for an hour by that jerk Previnger, who thinks he's God's gift to martial arts, and who hates your guts. I've been watching you protect your ribs all day, Illya! Look at you, you're covered in bandages, your leg doesn't seem to be healing yet—and don't lie to me about that, I've seen you limping. You don't give a damn if you get shot or not. Well, you may not care, but I do! I don't want to see you this way, because it hurts me! So what the hell are you doing, if you're not trying to get killed?"
Illya shoved Napoleon hard until there was distance between them again. "I'm not trying to get killed, I'm not trying to hurt you, Napoleon, I'm trying to save you!"
Napoleon stopped short, his hands dropping to his sides. "Save me? I can take care of myself. What do you think you're saving me from, Illya?"
But Illya was beyond listening to him. His fists clenched and unclenched, his eyes were wild and his breaths came so rapidly he seemed to be hovering on the edge of hyperventilation. "No. There's too much danger, Napoleon, much too much. I can't tell you what I feel, what I want—" His words stuttered out, choking him.
"Tell me! What do you want? Can't you say it?"
"I want—I need—" And then, incredibly, his face changed again and he gasped, "No, I can't!" Napoleon watched, horrified, as Illya drove his wounded arm into the corner of the wardrobe.
"What are you doing?" Napoleon yelled. "Stop that!"
Illya didn't stop; his bloody arm pounded into the edge of the wardrobe again and again, until Napoleon pulled him away. "What the hell!" Napoleon panted, grabbing a towel and winding around Illya's arm. "Jesus, Illya, what are you doing to yourself?"
"Trying. . .to stop it," he panted harshly, struggling against Napoleon. "But it doesn't stop, Napoleon, I can't—"
"For God's sake, stop what?"
Illya's eyes, wild, fevered, came up to Napoleon's, and held there for a brief moment. "This."
And then he was rushing at him, driving them both across the floor.
The wall came up to hit Napoleon in the back with such force that air was knocked out of him. He had time only to utter a pained "oof!" and then Illya was on him like a feral cat, hands grabbing, digging into his arms, almost tearing at him, one muscular leg jamming between Napoleon's thighs, eyes nearly crazed, face in a grimace of pain--
--no, not pain--
Napoleon had a moment to grab a breath, and then Illya's mouth was on his.
It wasn't a pretty kiss. It was brutal, insistent, more like an attack, and Napoleon had to resist his instinct to fight against Illya's aggression. But he was held in place by the arousal that came in waves, nearly palpable waves, from the man who now pressed him bodily against the wall.
He's hungry, Napoleon thought, stunned. But it was true; Illya was kissing him with the ferocity of a ravenous beast devouring its prey. It was as if he'd been starving his entire life. And that must be the truth, Napoleon realized with what remained of his logical brain. Illya had been starving for something, for touch, for contact, for affection, and God knew, probably for sex. Starving for someone. Starving for--
Thought slipped into sensation. Illya's muscular body pushed, rubbed, thrust against his, and Napoleon's reacted predictably. He felt himself harden, lust driving out any semblance of reason. The large hands roamed his torso, touching and grasping his flesh, burning him as they burrowed beneath his clothing. Napoleon felt the hard thrust of something against his thigh, and realized with a shiver that it was Illya's erection.
Illya broke off the kiss, his mouth now panting against Napoleon's neck, his hands busy on Napoleon's fly. There was a muted rustle as the zipper went down, and Napoleon gasped as a hot hand reached in and drew him out and started fondling him, pulling almost painfully at his rigid flesh. The arousal was moving beyond even Napoleon's vaunted control. Too fast, too fast! If this was going to happen, he wanted to protract it, enjoy the sensuality of it. "Illya," he started to say, his voice strained, but instantaneously the feverish eyes came back up to his, a warning in them. A naked arm, trailing blood, came across his chest, pushing him back against the wall.
"Don't," Illya rasped. It was not a request.
Napoleon fell silent.
It was Illya's show, evidently, so Napoleon lay his head back against the wall and let himself be plundered. His shirt was open, and Illya's sweat-streaked chest rubbed tantalizingly against his as the busy hands resumed their work. Beads of sweat gathered on Illya's face, and his breath was harsh as he unzipped his own fly. For one moment he rubbed himself against Napoleon, causing both of them to grunt. But the slight disparity in their heights seemed to frustrate him, and Napoleon suddenly found himself yanked away from the wall, spun around and pushed onto one of the small beds that furnished the safe house. He lay there on his back, recovering his breath, trying not to resist as Illya pulled at his trousers, grunting in frustration as they caught on his shoes. Illya left the pants pooled around Napoleon's ankles and did the same to his briefs.
It was like being caught up in a whirlwind. Mesmerized, Napoleon stared at the frenzied creature before him as Illya ripped off his own remaining clothing, revealing a battered but still beautiful body. And then the body in question was covering his, rubbing their erections together.
Napoleon closed his eyes, trembling with sensation. Illya felt like steel against him, all hard muscles and sharp bones, relieved only by the sparse hair on his chest and the thicker curls surrounding his sex. Napoleon pushed back against him, meeting him strength for strength. Only a small portion of his brain remained to compare the intensity and strength of his partner to the lush curves of his usual bedmates.
But "bedmate" was the wrong term. For all of Napoleon's fantasies of what sex would be like with Illya, he could not have imagined anything approaching this intensity. This had none of the savored sensuality of romantic lovemaking, or even the dangerous allure of his liaisons with THRUSH women. There was danger here, no doubt, Illya was dangerous, and almost unrecognizable in this state. This was sex, raw, wild, and, as Illya demanded it of him, harsh and rough. Napoleon didn’t care. He was swept up by the assault on all his senses, the exquisite friction against his cock, the animal-like sounds coming from his partner, the smells of sweat and blood, and, overwhelmingly, the erotic vision of Illya in the throes of passion.
The thrusts became harder and faster. He felt the wrenching sweetness of an approaching climax, and strained upward to meet Illya's heated flesh. Completion remained just out of his grasp, hovering just another thrust away--
Illya jerked, suddenly, his rhythm gone, and grabbed Napoleon's shoulders as he drove himself once more, roughly, against him. He threw back his head and grunted words Napoleon could not understand and wet warmth spurted and spread between them. Napoleon thrust into the slippery heat once, twice, and came hard.
Only afterwards did he recall he'd shouted Illya's name as he climaxed.
Napoleon lay on the small bed, recovering his breath and waiting for his wits to do the same. Illya was heavy and limp across him, his tangled hair sticking to Napoleon's cheek, his moist breath ragged in Napoleon's ear. In the hot tropical evening sweat trickled and slicked their skin, mixing with the ejaculate now cooling between them. Napoleon was hot and rather sticky. He didn't care. He was content to remain in this logy, sated condition for the foreseeable future. Right now nothing seemed terribly important except wallowing in the residual effects of pleasure.
And pleasure it had been, a novel pleasure that he found unexpectedly exciting, considering the violence of Illya's actions. Usually Napoleon disdained sex that embraced such overt aggression; his life was violent enough without wrangling to prove mastery over a lover. Besides, other than Angelique and a few random females of his acquaintance, he was almost always the one to take the lead. On the very rare occasions he'd had a male in his bed, he insisted on it.
Yet here he'd been called upon to submit to Illya's will, and without question he'd yielded control. It made him wonder what else he'd be willing to do if Illya asked it.
An interesting concept, and one which might have called into question Napoleon's understanding of himself. But he trusted Illya. Why shouldn't that be true in this new aspect of their partnership?
The partner in question twitched against him, small sharp movements that reawakened Napoleon's desire in a delicious shiver, though he hadn't enough energy to do anything more than raise one lazy hand to stroke the sweaty flank plastered to him. At the touch of his hand, however, Illya froze, then jerked upright and peeled himself away. The resulting coolness should have been welcome. It wasn't. Instead Napoleon felt bereft.
With a sigh, he blinked his eyelids open and pushed himself to a sitting position. Yes, he really was sticky, now that he took stock of himself and the various fluids that painted him, and immediately his fastidious nature demanded that he do something about it. Ah. Illya's shirt was lying next to the bed, and after only a moment's consideration he used it to wipe his stomach and genitals. A small smile played on his lips. Illya could hardly voice an objection.
Napoleon put down the shirt and darted a glance around the room. Illya was seated on the other bed, his head in his hands. Fading sunlight poked between the wooden shutters, turning his hair orange, his skin a pale gold. He would have been a figure of incredible beauty, not unlike Rodin's "Thinker," if his posture had not been one of profound misery.
"Illya?" No answer. Napoleon pulled up his briefs and fastened his trousers as he crossed to the other bed. "Illya." He smoothed the yellow hair. Illya's hands tightened and he murmured something too low for Napoleon to catch. "You'll have to speak up," Napoleon said lightly. "You shorted out my ears while you were blowing my mind." There was no response, so Napoleon sat down beside him. "Hey. You're not being morose, I hope. You know, la tristesse. None of that, now." No answer. "Illya?"
The broad hands came away, finally, but knotted in Illya's lap. He looked tired, Napoleon thought, but not from the exertion of their passion. Soul-weary. "I imagine you'll be happy to have Waverly reassign me now," Illya said hollowly.
So that's the way the wind is blowing, Napoleon thought, not really surprised. Illya had broken his own rule of self-containment, rocked his own orderly world. "Well, you're wrong if you imagine that."
Illya shook his head disbelievingly, but still didn't make eye contact. "I'm so sorry, Napoleon."
"Are you? Whatever for?"
"Oh, Napoleon!" Illya sputtered with exasperation. "Please don't pretend. I behaved like a savage. I should not have. . .done what I did." He paused, pursing his lips into a narrow line. "I should have had more control."
"I think," Napoleon said slowly, measuring his words, "I think you've had too much of control in your life, my friend. In my opinion you need quite a bit less of it."
Illya ran a hand through his sweaty hair, some of which remained standing, which Napoleon thought made him look quite young. "You can't want to continue working with me. Not after I gave into my baser urges like that."
"That depends. Are you likely to give into them again? Because if you are, I might be coerced into keeping you."
The blue eyes snapped up. "I cannot believe you're taking this so lightly."
"I'm not. I'm putting it into perspective for you, because you don't seem to be able to do so." Napoleon leaned in, dropping his voice to a sultry whisper. "I like your baser urges."
Illya frowned. "Are you being deliberately provocative?"
Illya stared at him incredulously. "You're flirting with me! I don't believe it. What a decadent hedonist you are, Napoleon!"
"Is that supposed to be an insult?"
"You can't be serious!"
"How can you be?" Illya stood up abruptly and began to pace. Napoleon watched, entranced, as the light and shadow played across the pale naked skin. Illya caught him looking and stopped, and an angry edge entered his voice. "You’re impossible! How can you bear to be near me, and not tear me limb from limb? What I did was—was—unconscionable. I assaulted you!"
Napoleon snorted. "Please. I've been assaulted by pros, and that was no assault. That was what we decadent hedonists call passion, moi droog. Lust. It was what you wanted. And if I hadn't wanted it, I would have stopped you. Are you sorry you wanted it? Or that you wanted me?" Napoleon's tone turned sharper. "Or is it that any convenient body would have served? Because frankly, that would be insulting."
Illya sputtered in frustration. "No, I, you—damn you, you're turning this around, turning it into nonsense! You don't think I go around doing this to everyone, do you? You think I'm like you, trying to, to fuck anything with a pulse?"
"Well, I appreciate your eliminating necrophilia as part of my repertoire, but frankly I have no idea what you do. You don't talk about your sex life."
Illya let out a string of colorful epithets, of which Napoleon recognized only a few. "Dammit, Napoleon! Of course I wanted you, only you. There! Have I satisfied your vanity? Merde. Can I debase myself any further?"
"My vanity be damned," Napoleon said, trying to hide a smile. "Seems to me you've just proved my point from the other night."
Illya made an indignant noise. "Oh, so now this is a case of who is right?"
"I'm not the one turning this into a battle, or a debate. So you wanted me. You lusted after me. Maybe you even like me a little. In case it escaped your notice, I wanted you, too. And lusted after you. I have since 'that night,' in case you're interested." He reached out to run a hand down Illya's arm, then held on gently to his wrist, his thumb stroking softly underneath. "Why are we arguing? I have no complaints. None at all. Quite the opposite."
"You're being tolerant. Stop it, I—I don't believe in it."
"Tolerant? Christ, Illya, tolerant is when I let you push ahead of me in the cafeteria line, knowing you'll grab the last piece of key lime pie. Tolerant is letting you think you have the last word when we argue."
"Hah. You can't—"
"—Shut up a minute. This is not tolerant. This is me watching you finally let go and take what you want. I'm flattered that what you wanted was me. It's a good thing, so stop beating yourself up. "
"Hmph." Illya continued to scowl, but Napoleon saw that his anger was beginning to run down. "Believe me, Napoleon, wanting you goes against my better instincts. Don't get a swelled head over it."
"It wasn't my head that got swelled by that little display of yours, tovarishch." He leaned in and waggled his eyebrows. "Well, it was, but not the head with my brain in it."
Illya pulled his arm out of Napoleon's grasp. "Must you be so coarse? And stop leering. You're making me ill." But the harshness in his tone had faded, and the corner of his mouth threatened to turn upwards.
Napoleon grinned in triumph. "That's better. I like it when you insult me. Feels just like home. As for coarseness, why are you trying to bury what happened between us with euphemisms? 'Baser instincts,' indeed. Don't make this ugly, Illya. I know you can say 'fuck' in ten languages—why can't you say 'made love' in any of them?"
Illya sat down heavily on the bed. "Is that what we did?" he asked, his voice unsure. "Did we make love, Napoleon? I don't know what to think any more."
"It was a little bit raw, but 'making love' is how I choose to see it. Some refinements come to mind, but we can work out the fine points later."
"Later? You don't mean you'd want to do this. . . that. . .again?"
"Look, Illya, if you want to forget this happened, go ahead, but I'm sorry. I can't. I don't want to forget. What I want is for it to happen again. Do you?"
"Napoleon, I-- "
"Don't over-think this. Only you can decide if this is a beginning or an ending. And before you start worrying, I promise no matter what you say it won't affect us being partners."
Illya rubbed his forehead. "Napoleon. How can it not?"
"I won't let it. I swear to you, Illya." He caught Illya's hand and covered his own heart with it. "I swear."
Illya looked at his hand, large and tanned, against the pale expanse of Napoleon's chest. "You're so naive, my friend."
Napoleon brightened. "Well, at least you know I'm your friend. That's a start. So. I know what I want. What do you want?"
The doubts were written plainly across Illya's face. But when he spoke, the words filled Napoleon with hope. "I want. . .I don't want to end this, Napoleon. Any of it."
"Good. Good. Great! Don’t look so sad. Be happy!"
"You’re such a ridiculous optimist." Illya released a profound sigh, what Napoleon thought of as a purely "Russian" sound. "We will both regret this. You have no idea what a Pandora's box I've opened, Napoleon."
"Are you concerned about what other people may think? Or about our jobs? Because, really, I don't think Waverly would care a bit, as long as we get the job done. And I don't plan on telling anyone else—do you?"
"Certainly not," Illya said vehemently. "It's no one's business."
"I agree. Though I know at least three people who think we’ve been doing it for years. So if that's what's worrying you—"
"No," Illya said, suddenly grim again. "It's—it's not that, it's. . ." He tightened his lips against whatever he'd been about to say.
Napoleon took Illya's face between his hands and studied his expression. There was so much doubt there, so much fatalism. "I promise you this, Illya.. Whatever it is you're afraid of, I won't let it get you. I welcome this. Please believe me." He leaned forward and pressed a kiss softly against the down-turned lips. "Don't try to go back into the box, okay? I need you out here. With me. Can you do that?"
"This cannot come to good, Napoleon," Illya sighed morosely. "You must trust me in this."
"No, for once I won't. You'll have to trust me. This new thing, well, it doesn't surprise me that we've moved on to being involved physically. Look, I want this. I want you. I care about you, Illya, always have. Clearly you must feel the same way or none of this would have happened. Can we agree on that?"
Illya said nothing, but he didn't pull away. Napoleon slowly wrapped one arm around his shoulders and drew him in. "All right," Illya said, rather grudgingly.
"Well, finally," Napoleon murmured into Illya's hair. "So. Does this place have a shower?"
"You'll have to make do with a tub, I'm afraid," Illya sighed. Napoleon pulled him even tighter, and he winced. "Easy. I've had a difficult day."
"You make it difficult for yourself, Illya Nickovetch," Napoleon whispered, but it was with fondness. He considered the naked form he held close to his side. Illya was a rather colorful collection of old bruises and abrasions. The new slice on his upper arm was red and angry. Napoleon tsked at him. "You're a mess, and so am I. Come on," he said, urging him to his feet. "Let's go take a bath."
In Illya's dream, he is lying on the seashore on a deserted tropical island, half in and half out of the water. The azure sea laps gently against his flesh, coursing up and down his body in rhythmic strokes. The wind blows softly in his ear, sounding for all the world like whispered words. The sand at his back is not like regular sand, it is wet and hot and smooth, and almost seems to breathe, making him rise gently along with it on every indrawn breath, and throbs with a steady rhythm. It is a curious feeling, but a comforting one. The words in the wind grow louder, their meaning clearer, and the sense of them circles through his brain and warms him, making his body respond in interesting ways. Because the words are telling him how much he is desired, how much he is wanted, how he is needed.
A quiver of desire shakes him as the warm water surrounds, lingers, fondles him, almost like fingers on his slick skin. The sensation is exquisite. He leans in to the water's touch, strains towards it, and the sand below him rises up, forcing him up with it, while the wind whispering in his ear tells him to wait, hold on, Illya, take it
"—easy, there. You trying to drown us both?"
He flailed for a moment as his eyes came open, and cooling water splashed in waves over the side of the tub. From behind him, strong arms reached around to hold him still and an amused voice chuckled in his ear. "It might be difficult to explain to Waverly if we die indoors in a flood."
Illya blinked and yawned. "Bathtub."
"Very astute." Napoleon stood up, taking him along.
He must have been leaning back against Napoleon while they bathed. He remembered the throbbing, breathing sands of his dream—that had been Napoleon's chest, pressed close against his back, Napoleon's heart beating against him. He trembled, but not with cold. "I must have fallen asleep."
A soft snicker. "Oh, really?" Napoleon stepped out of the tub and reached in to pull the plug.
Illya stepped out next to him, his eyes adjusting to the low light cast by an oil lamp. Water glistened on Napoleon's skin, shimmered on the smooth expanse of his chest, and ran in rivulets down his stomach to disappear into the dark thatch of his pubic hair. Illya's fingers itched to follow the path the water took, but he kept his hands to himself.
His eyes wandered freely, however. Napoleon had a nice chest, developed, but not overly muscle-bound. He had good shoulders, too, the perfect shoulders from which to hang expensive suits. Illya found himself staring at him as if he'd never really looked at him before, though in truth he'd seen him in various states of undress many times. He'd tended to Napoleon's injuries, held him through long, bitter nights to preserve body heat, been trussed hand and foot to him on more than a few occasions. There was no part of him he had not touched. But now that he'd felt Napoleon's body against his and knew him as a lover, he wanted to learn each part anew, to deconstruct him, run inquisitive hands over each muscle, bone, hard plane and soft inner curve, use his scientist's mind to categorize and then to claim them.
It was exactly what he had feared would happen.
I must be insane, he thought wildly. What am I doing? What have I done? Angry with himself, he cursed his own weakness, his own inability to follow the path he'd laid out for himself. He should have demanded reassignment the moment he got back from Saudi Arabia—no—it should have been earlier, much earlier, shortly after they were paired, the day he realized the attraction, before he forced that knowledge into the shadows of his heart. He'd known the dangers, known this would happen if he let his guard down.
But the odds had been stacked against him from the start. He'd wanted to walk away, but it was impossible, because he could not begin to imagine his life without Napoleon by his side. Maybe it was Fate. Maybe there was nothing he could have done but yield to it.
Whatever it is you're afraid of, I won't let it get you, Napoleon had said. If only it were just that, Illya thought fiercely. If only I were my own life I feared for.
The life he was worried about smiled at him, a toothy smile that lit up Napoleon's face with affection, and with the promise of sex in the not-so-distant future. Illya closed his eyes against the heat flooding him.
"Hello? You sure you're awake?"
Napoleon's voice cut through his reverie. A towel was wrapped around him, the threadbare terry cloth pulling against his wet skin. Napoleon started drying him, and Illya forced himself stop thinking dark thoughts. There was nothing to be done, anyway; the die was cast. There was no going back to pretending he felt nothing for Napoleon. There was no hiding behind physical pain, because in the end it only obscured his internal turmoil, but could not obliterate it.
He lost himself in the sensation of Napoleon's hands gently rubbing him dry. Funny; he didn't like to be "handled" by anyone, enemy, friend, doctor, tailor. But he was content to let Napoleon touch him, and that touch reawakened his flesh and his arousal.
"In the bath," he said, his voice somewhere between a sigh and a groan, "You were touching me."
Napoleon's eyes met his, and his lips quirked into a lopsided smile. "Um, guilty as charged. Sorry. You have to watch me all the time or I'm liable to fondle you in your sleep."
"Perhaps I should sleep with one eye open, then."
"Perhaps you should." Napoleon took away the towel and started drying himself with it.
Illya watched with hungry eyes. Napoleon's hands moved about his own damp body, sliding up his legs, down his arms, across that smooth chest. His fingers twitched; he could almost feel the taut skin under his hands. "If it’s all the same, I think I'd rather be awake," he said.
Napoleon paused and took a breath. His mouth widened into a grin. "I'm feeling pretty awake right now." His eyes darted down Illya's body and the smile became seductive. "You're awake too, I see."
Insufferable. Teasing. Tormenting. Never at a disadvantage, never at a loss for words. How Napoleon maddened him! The quips, the barbs, the joking banter—all designed to provoke and stir. He knew Napoleon's tricks so well, as well as he knew Napoleon would never mock him with the intention of inflicting pain.
Napoleon's hands maddened him, too, and excited him. They were ordinary hands with well-kept nails, not beautiful nor artistic, yet Illya knew they could touch beautifully, artfully, with the skill of a master. And the dark eyes, hazel turning to deep brown—they inflamed Illya, as well. How he'd suffered the despair of hopeless jealousy for years, watching his partner scrutinize every person he met, Napoleon's velvet eyes flickering in admiration over those he found beautiful.
As they were flickering over Illya now.
A tiny hope sparked inside him, that somewhere, someday, there was a remote possibility of achieving happiness.
Dark, unruly fear gathered like in an ominous cloud around the edge of his awareness, quenching the spark. Angry with himself, he pushed the fear aside. He tried not to think about consequences.
The two men stepped into the outer room and looked at the pair of small beds, no bigger than cots, really. A glance at each other, and then, in sync with this, as they were with everything else, they pulled both mattresses onto the floor and shoved them together. Napoleon brought the lamp into the room from the bathroom, setting it on a table, where it cast pleasing shadows over both of them.
Illya knelt on the mattress and waited, watching the flickering light. For the moment, it felt as if he had returned to his dream. Nothing felt quite real; there was no outside world, no mission. Nothing existed save this room and the two men in it.
He became aware gradually that Napoleon was speaking. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"Do you need me to tape up your arm?"
"No, it's fine, it's not bleeding," he said absently, his eyes on his partner. Napoleon stood by the bureau, one hand on the first aid kit, one on his hip. His dark hair was disordered, his eyes in shadow, his body like marble. Beautiful, Illya thought. And then another thought came to him, a thought that carried with it a stab of desire. "Napoleon. The first aid kit."
"What do you need?" A worried look.
"Inside," Illya said, amazed at the calmness in his voice, "I think there is some petroleum jelly."
"Yes, here it is—what do you want it f—" Napoleon stopped dead still, and looked at him. "I don't suppose this is because you have a sunburn."
Illya shook his head.
The box clattered against the bureau as Napoleon fumbled for the latch. That made Illya smile. So he wasn't the only one rattled by this.
Napoleon didn't look rattled, though, as he sat beside him on the mattress. In the near-darkness of the room Napoleon's eyes were still in shadow, but he tilted up his face until the lamplight kindled orange flames in the dark irises. "So," he said. He smiled his devastating smile.
Illya closed his eyes. "Nyet, nyet, Napoleon."
"No? No why? No to what?"
"Don't smile at me like that. I can’t think when you do that."
"That's the idea." Napoleon shifted, settling down onto his side, and after a moment Illya did the same. "So."
Napoleon chuckled softly, and Illya again thought of velvet. "Still trying to get in the last word?"
Illya opened his mouth to protest, but Napoleon drew him into a close embrace, pulling him into a kiss. "Not. . .fair," he said against Napoleon's lips.
"I know," Napoleon murmured, and took his mouth again.
There was a moment where they wrangled for control, chest to chest, limbs tangling, mouths wrestling for position against each other. Illya gained the advantage and pressed his partner back onto the makeshift bed. He felt Napoleon's muscles working against his, tensile strength ready to uncoil, and he pushed back with equal force.
I'm not the one making this a battle, Napoleon had said.
He wondered what he was doing. Hadn't he forced himself on Napoleon enough for one day? Even in this most intimate of embraces, it seemed he needed to be in control. So why not just yield? It came to him that he could allow that, he must allow it, if this was to be more than just a single night's passion between them. So he softened against the advances of Napoleon's talented mouth, telling himself there could be no shame in acquiescing to it.
In fact, it was a force of nature, Napoleon's kiss. The curved lips nibbled, sucked, feasted on him, the agile tongue flirted with his, teasing, provoking him to respond. Utterly devastated, Illya abandoned his last defenses and welcomed Napoleon in.
He was kissing Napoleon—really kissing him, not with the violent urgency of their previous encounter, but leisurely, sensually. Heat pooled in his groin and spread upwards as Napoleon rolled them sideways, ending on top. Illya became light-headed. It was only when Napoleon pulled away and left him panting that he realized the lightheadedness was from lack of oxygen. He drew in a deep lungful of air and found Napoleon grinning down at him. He snarled. "It's not from your technique, so stop smirking at me." But that was a lie, a transparent one, and Napoleon smiled indulgently and kissed him again.
He regained enough of his senses this time to let his hands roam Napoleon's body. They slid across the smooth back, feeling the play of muscles there, pausing for a moment to examine scar tissue where a knife had sliced Napoleon just below the ribs, many missions ago. The thought that he could have lost him then, before ever reaching this day, made him grip his partner tightly.
"What?" Napoleon murmured, nuzzling his ear.
"Nothing," Illya whispered back.
He slid his hands further down the solid body, cupping Napoleon's rear, eliciting a soft moan. And then Napoleon affixed his hot mouth to Illya's neck, and he moaned as well. His hands ventured further downward, along the lightly furred length of Napoleon's thighs, and moved between them to swirl in the tight curls surrounding his cock. He grasped him firmly, and suddenly Napoleon was the one gasping for air. "Illya," he groaned. Illya smiled.
Napoleon rolled them over again, until Illya ended up on top, straddling his thighs. He leaned in to renew the kiss, but Napoleon winced suddenly and shifted, one hand reaching under his thigh. The jar of petroleum jelly was in the palm of his hand. And suddenly Napoleon did look rattled. "Illya," he said, his voice cracking, his eyes unsure.
Comprehension dawned at how things must appear. Napoleon on the bottom, he on top. The newness of their physical relationship. . . How clear, how delightfully clear to know that at this moment Napoleon was rudderless—nervous, but willing to play whichever part Illya decreed. He, Illya Kuryakin, was in command.
Except. . .
He did not wish to be.
It was devastating to discover what he wanted, what he really wanted. Illya took a deep breath and smiled with what he hoped looked like confidence. He took the small jar from Napoleon's hand, and with his eyes locked on his partner's, scooped some of the greasy contents onto his fingers. Napoleon's eyes shifted to follow his hand, to track where it was headed. And so he paused for effect, despite his own thudding heart, because no matter what he wanted, no matter how overwhelming the rising tide of passion, it was impossible to yield so overtly to Napoleon Solo without tormenting him just a little.
His hand paused by his own erection, as it poked upwards along Napoleon's belly. And then he shifted, and his hand found Napoleon's cock. His fist closed around the rigid shaft, coating it liberally, and Napoleon groaned at the friction of Illya's firm hand. "You'd, ah, better quit doing that or it's going to be a one-act show we're putting on here."
Illya said nothing, but stroked him once more before climbing off his legs. He stared at the man before him. Sprawled out on the mattress, legs splayed, erection thrusting upward, eyelids heavy with desire, Napoleon was the dark-haired god of debauchery. Illya thought he had never seen a more erotic sight.
With a shaking hand, he reached out and placed the jar beside his partner, unable to look him in the eye any more for fear of climaxing right then and there. The heat between them now was almost too intense to bear. Still not saying a word, he lay down beside him, on his stomach.
"Illya," Napoleon said, in a slightly strangled voice. "You want me to. . ."
"Yes." Beside him, Napoleon sighed raggedly. And then nothing happened for a long moment. Napoleon did not touch him. "Napoleon?"
"Are you planning to. . ."
A longer pause. "Sometime this evening?"
Illya frowned. "Are you nervous? I. . .assumed you'd done this before."
"Once or twice."
"So this will make three. Get on with it. Please."
"Is this some cunning new form of torture?"
"Is there a problem?"
"Forgive me. It's just that. . ."
"What?" He turned onto his side, faintly exasperated, and found his partner staring at him with such tenderness it took his breath away. "What is it, Napoleon?" he asked, his tone gentling.
"It's just. . .yes, I've done this before, Illya. But this is the only time that matters."
Absurd, the way those words, that voice, were red-hot flames licking his skin. "Oh, Napoleon." He sat up, put a hand behind Napoleon's neck and kissed him softly. Their eyes met briefly. "Please." He kissed Napoleon again, a little more urgently.
Illya lay down and Napoleon shifted beside him, finally, and a warm hand stroked down his back from shoulders to buttocks, then back up again. He arched into the hand, as a cat might, then gasped softly as the hand continued downward, stroking between his cheeks. He felt Napoleon move again, felt the heat as a muscular leg pressed against his own, while all the time the hand remained where it was, stroking, massaging. Napoleon stretched out over him to nuzzle at the nape of his neck, his other hand underneath him, circling a nipple. He pressed into Napoleon's fingers, reveling in the jolts that skillful hand induced.
His nipple was released and he groaned in frustration, but Napoleon's mouth was on the move again, his hot tongue stoking fire down the length of Illya's back, following the same path his hands had just taken, down to the base of his spine.
Gooseflesh raised on his skin. It was extraordinary, being tasted in this way, but he had only a moment to savor it. Napoleon shifted again, back further, and then two strong hands were pulling his buttocks apart, and, incredibly, that tongue that had excited Illya's mouth so devastatingly a few short minutes ago was sliding between his cheeks, moving downward, until it found its target.
It was as if a lightning bolt had struck at the center of him. "Napoleon!" he cried, writhing. Napoleon chuckled, and the vibration set Illya off in another twitch. Napoleon's tongue swirled around the puckered opening until Illya thought he would go mad. His hands clutched at the mattress cover, tangling in the thin fabric. Napoleon's tongue stiffened and entered him, and he drove his swelling erection into the mattress, nonsense syllables streaming from his lips.
Napoleon's tongue withdrew, to be replaced by a slick finger. The finger was thicker than the tongue, and less pliant, and he stilled momentarily and gulped in several mouthfuls of air, coping with the sensation. Napoleon paused too, for a moment, before pushing in further, stroking deeper. He is inside of me. Part of him is inside me. It was his last coherent thought before Napoleon moved deeper and stroked against something that set off sparks behind his eyes, turning him into a gibbering mass of overeager nerve endings. The intrusion of Napoleon's finger sent him to his knees, his rear high in the air, pushing back against the hand that even now was working another finger in beside the other.
There was nothing like this feeling, nothing he'd experienced before, and if he'd neglected to tell Napoleon that he'd never, ever had sex with a man in this way, well, Napoleon didn't have to know, because no doubt he would have balked at doing what he was doing now, which was, in brief, driving him into a frenzy.
"Tovarishch, tovarishch," Napoleon crooned, "Easy, not so fast, take it easy—"
"No, no," he babbled in response. And then the hand touching him so intimately was slowly withdrawn, and he cried "No, no!" again, at its absence.
"Still with me?" Napoleon said softly in his ear.
"Don't. . .leave. . .me. . .like. . .this!"
Napoleon laughed gently. "Wouldn't dream of it. Are you ready?"
"For God's sake, Napoleon!"
"Here we go." One of Napoleon's hands spread his buttocks, and then the blunt head of his partner's cock pressed between them. He held his breath, tightening up at the first intrusion. "Breathe, Illya," Napoleon said, sounding a bit breathless himself.
As in all things in their partnership, he did as Napoleon directed. He breathed. The large erection pressed in a bit more. It was painful, there was no getting around the fact, and his breath hitched.
"Illya?" Napoleon did not sound so sure, now.
"Go on," he forced out between his teeth.
"I don't want to hurt you."
"Napoleon! Do it."
He heard Napoleon sigh, and the heavy spear pushed into him another inch. His body started to resist, started to force out the intruder stretching him. His own erection wilted as he grappled with the pain, and he bit his lip, forcing himself to silence. It was a struggle to breathe; each indrawn breath sounded to his own ears like the gasps of an asthmatic. "Stop, stop a minute."
"Illya, you're too tight—"
"—Please," he begged, and he heard Napoleon make a little noise deep in his throat. Clearly it was costing him to keep still. "Just. . .just give me a moment."
He forced himself to breathe evenly, forced himself not to move, and shortly he found he could endure the sensation. "All right. Go on."
"Illya, are you sure—"
"—Go on!" he growled, and Napoleon went on. The pressure increased as Napoleon pushed into him more, burning and stretching him to the point of endurance. A cold sweat broke out on his skin. It was too much, too much. How on earth did men do this? He thought he was going to have to give up, tell him to stop, pull out, but Napoleon pressed in a half-inch more and suddenly something jolted inside him, as it had before, only better than before, much better, worlds better, something that lit him up from the inside. His penis twitched and started to rise again, and he moaned and pushed back and opened to his partner, wanting more. Another push, another slide, and Napoleon was sheathed in him fully.
"There we are," Napoleon whispered, his voice strained.
"Yes." It was all he could manage.
"God. Illya," Napoleon rasped against him, his breath stirring the hair at the nape of Illya's neck, his chest against Illya's back, like the dream, just like the dream, "If you could see this, see us, see me in you—"
He groaned, pushing back harder, wiggling his ass against Napoleon's groin.
"Okay, hold on," Napoleon said, sounding for all the world like he was barely holding on himself. There was a strange sensation, an emptiness, as Napoleon pulled back, back, nearly out of him, and then slid in again, all the way into him, striking unerringly against that sensitive spot within him, electrifying him. So good, so very good. Napoleon panted in his ear; he felt balls pressed against his buttocks, felt the wiry pubic hair on his over-sensitized skin, and then Napoleon was doing it again, plunging into him a little faster, grinding their bodies together, and again, a little harder, and then again, and again.
There were no words to describe the sensation, the fullness, the completeness of having Napoleon inside him. Illya felt strong arms encircle him, pull him from his hands and knees back onto muscular thighs, felt a hand encircle his own erection, felt the other being who was separate and yet not separate from him move him like a puppet, but he was beyond caring. Each stroke that pulled back and pushed into him again lay his nerve endings open, drove flames into his body, bright lights into his brain. His head fell back against a solid shoulder. The hand on his slick erection stroked him in counterpoint, working him relentlessly, and he felt himself coming apart at the seams, slowly, slowly unraveling. He let go of the last vestiges of control, let himself thrust back with abandon, unashamed to cry out in passion as the thick heat speared him over and over with abandon, driving him toward a frenzied climax. Behind him, around him, inside him, someone was saying his name, only it wasn't quite his name, it sounded like Illyusha, Illyusha, and that was wrong, that wasn't who he was, not who he was now, but the thought dissipated because suddenly his climax was upon him, wrenching him, and he was falling, falling apart, exploding, coming for what seemed forever, dimly aware of a strange keening coming from his own mouth.
Behind him Napoleon arched up, his strokes growing shallow and irregular. The hands on his hips turned into vises. Sweat dripped down onto Illya's skin as Napoleon grunted loudly and came in a hot rush. Illya felt the thick cock twitch inside him, and the sensation made him pulse once more himself, a stutter of come jerking out of him for a second time.
The hands left him and like a marionette whose strings are cut, he collapsed forward onto the mattress. A heartbeat later and Napoleon landed across his back, pinning him under his heavy limp weight. Illya could barely breathe, but he didn't care. He didn't care if he never breathed another breath.
A long, long time later the weight lifted, and there was a transitory pain as Napoleon pulled out. He didn't care about that either. Napoleon rolled off him, and the sparkles behind his eyes retreated as air came back into his lungs. He heard a deep, satisfied sigh. "Do you suppose there's enough water for another bath?"
"Unghrr," Illya grunted into the mattress. His body felt as if he'd stuck a finger, or maybe his cock, into an electrical socket.
A soft chuckle answered him. "All right, stay there."
Another long stretch of time passed. Possibly he dozed off. He came back into reality as Napoleon gently pulled him by one arm until he was lying on his back. Something warm trickled between his cheeks and down he inside of his thigh, and he realized with whatever brain cells remained that it was Napoleon's semen, which gave him a little frisson of desire, though no part of his body could have responded effectively at that moment.
A cooling cloth stroked across his stomach, his inner thighs. "Jesus, Illya, what you look like. You look thoroughly ravished."
"I think I'll keep you like this, ravished and quiet and cooperative."
"You can try."
"I knew it was too good to last." The cloth, now cool, slid between his cheeks and he winced. Napoleon's hand stilled. "Are you that sore?"
His eyes came open. Napoleon was staring at the cloth with an unreadable expression. "It doesn't matter," Illya said.
"I knew you were too tight. I knew it. I hurt you." Napoleon's tone held guilt and pain and something else Illya couldn't quite identify.
"No, no you didn't," he protested, sitting up, but in doing so winced again at the soreness.
"Dammit!" Napoleon was on his feet. "It shouldn't—" He paused, and comprehension dawned. "This was the first time for you, wasn't it?"
"Wasn't it?" An accusation?
"Yes, but what possible difference can that make? I wanted—"
"—You wanted me to hurt you, didn't you?"
Illya stared at him incredulously. "Of course not!"
Napoleon glared back, furious. "Why 'of course?' You've used every other possible means to hurt yourself, why not me?"
Illya got to his knees. "Are you insane?"
"No! Are you?" Napoleon moved away from him, anger carving deep lines around his eyes and mouth.
"I cannot believe you would think—" Illya fought against his own growing anger, knowing it would only make things worse. "Napoleon. I promise, no, I swear to you that's not the way it was. For God's sake, I would never use you in that way. Never!" His throat was tightening up again, emotion rising to the surface. "How can you think that of me?"
Uncertainty crept into Napoleon's face. "Why, why didn't you tell me, then? Why did you let me be so rough with you? Why did you let me think you'd done this before?"
"Would you have gone through with it?"
"Maybe. I would have taken more time, I would have been more aware, gentler—"
"—And what if I couldn't wait, what if I had to have you right then, not gentle, not slower, but just the way it was? Not to hurt myself, but to have everything, all at once, and feel it all. To feel! I haven't felt anything in a very long time, Napoleon. I needed--" He bit his lip until the wave of emotion receded. "I wanted this. I wanted you, and I wanted you in that way, right then, no waiting, no gentleness. My God, Napoleon, it was. . ." He let out a deep breath. I was happy, he thought.
"But I hurt you, I—"
"—No! You haven't, not in any way that matters. But this is hurting me, that you'd think I'd manipulate you like that. There are two of us here, Napoleon, and I have as much right as you to want what I want. Haven’t you been at pains to tell me that? Repeatedly?"
"Illya. Illya." Napoleon dropped to the mattress beside him and ran a shaky hand through his dark hair. "I have. I have said that, and I meant it. I'm just. . . I saw you in pain, and thought about you hitting your arm that way, and I thought. . . I don't know what I thought."
"This is my fault. I apologize."
"No! It's not, it's. . . Sorry. I don't want to doubt you. I don't doubt you. You scared me, that's all. You scared me to death."
"No," Napoleon said, moving toward him, looking him in the eye. "No more of either of us being sorry. I don't know I why I thought that. You've always been straight with me—"
"Perhaps you might consider using another word, under the circumstances."
"What?" Napoleon looked at him and narrowed his eyes. "Is that you making a joke with me, Illya?"
"One of us has to make clever conversation, Napoleon. My turn, I believe."
Napoleon barked out a surprised laugh and wrapped his arms around him, pulling him tight against him. "Illya, Illya. Shall we start again?"
"I don’t think I'm up to a third round, Napoleon."
Napoleon snorted softly in his ear, moving them both to lie again on the mattress. "That's not what I mean, you decadent hedonist, and you know it."
"Ah, so I'm the decadent one, now?"
"Absolutely. I've never seen such wild abandon."
"Try a mirror."
"Ha." Napoleon pulled him tighter. He yawned hugely and rubbed his face in Illya's hair. "I suppose we should grab some sleep while we can. God, what a pair we are."
"Pair of what?" Illya said, licking Napoleon's collarbone.
"Spies. Partners." Napoleon murmured, already half asleep. "Lovers. . ."
And fools, Illya thought. He frowned. Banishing the thought, he pulled his partner, friend and lover closer.
Hong Kong. Paris. Rio.
Mad scientists. Rampaging crime lords. Armed invasions.
Geneva. Algiers. Nepal.
Killer bees. Lethal inventions. Doomsday weapons.
Business as usual.
Yet for Napoleon Solo, it wasn't usual, not by a long shot. True, missions came and went with brutal regularity, leaving him jet-lagged and sartorially damaged, weary and yet satisfied with a job well done. As always, Illya Kuryakin was at his side, providing flawless backup and insidious infiltration and daring escapes and general ruthlessness.
But that was only the half of it.
Because the passion with which they pursued their jobs couldn't hold a candle to the passion that burned white-hot between them when they were off the clock. Napoleon's odd quirk of naming missions spilled over into his private life; secretly he thought of what he and Illya were engaged in as "The Blisteringly Hot Affair." He kept that to himself. Illya would have mocked him mercilessly.
Their encounters always began the same way, with Napoleon initiating intimacy and Illya slowly, almost begrudgingly, succumbing to desire. It was no challenge to get him into bed, but once there Illya fiercely held himself in check, as if fearful of the intensity he'd shown at their first encounter. Napoleon would urge him on, assuring him that he was capable of handling whatever Illya threw at him. And still Illya would resist. It was almost comical, Napoleon reflected, how Illya fought for mastery, not over his partner, but over himself.
But eventually he would lose the battle, and once unleashed, Illya's passion would overtake him, driving him almost desperately to completion. Napoleon lived for those moments, the tipping point when Illya's defenses would crumble and he would give in to his own sensuality. In those moments he proved to be a creature of not-entirely-unexpected sexual voracity. Each time ended with the frantic urgency Illya had displayed the first time they were together. He attacked sex the way he attacked food—ravenously, insatiably, giving over his appetite to the smorgasbord of Napoleon's body, leaving Napoleon limp and boneless as a slab of gravlax.
Not that he was complaining, mind you. Luckily for him, Illya's years of self-denial (not to mention all that gymnastic training, Napoleon mused, smirking) made him an incredibly creative and intense lover, who was willing to try anything Napoleon suggested. Which in turn made Napoleon eager to return the favor, though sometimes it took substantial cajoling to make Illya admit to specific desires of his own. They were fairly evenly matched, and coupled with the edgy competition that always existed between them, it made for some inventive and exhilarating sex.
Yet, oddly, in one area they weren't equal at all. For all his utter abandon in bed—not to mention in the Jacuzzi, on the floor, the couch and the dining room table—Illya refused to address the larger issue, which was what exactly was going on between them. Not the acts themselves; he was quite willing to talk during sex, explicitly and erotically, but he would not—absolutely refused to—discuss their affair. If Napoleon's conversation turned to their future plans, or even to the possibility of a mutual vacation, Illya would blatantly change the subject. And on the several occasions, lying there sweat-soaked and satiated, that Napoleon had pulled his partner tighter and started to tell him what he meant to him, to use the word "relationship," Illya would have none of it. The eternal crease between his eyes would deepen, and his mouth would tighten into a frown. "No, Napoleon," he'd say, with a note of desperation. "Don't say anything." Or, sometimes, his voice level and emotionless, he would state, "It is what it is. Please stop." And Napoleon would stop.
It frustrated Napoleon to do so, but he was no fool. This had already become more than a dalliance to him, and he assumed that it was the same for Illya. Well, maybe that was his own wishful thinking, but in any case, something still lurked underneath Illya's outward demeanor, something that perhaps not even he himself understood. Whatever it was, whatever secrets or fears lurked within, troubling his soul, Illya would not or could not bring them into the open. For now, his body was Napoleon's, but his heart still remained his own.
There were other symptoms that all was not right with his partner, though the instances of self-injury and recklessness had stopped completely. Twice he'd awaked to find Illya thrashing about in the throes of an intense nightmare. Napoleon recognized the cold sweat, inarticulate cries and rapid breaths coming from his partner; he'd suffered more than a few post-mission nightmares himself over the years.
But Illya's bad dreams didn't occur after missions, no matter how bloody or dangerous they were; in fact, in all the time they'd been partnered, Napoleon had never before witnessed him having any kind of sleep disturbance. Two incidents were not enough to form a pattern, however, so Napoleon waited, hoping they had been aberrations. It was certainly pointless to ask Illya what he'd dreamt of. Napoleon didn't even try. But he wondered what distressing images haunted Illya's subconscious, and what had brought them on.
And then there was his strange reaction the other night. Napoleon had mostly cured himself of the habit of making up silly names to call his partner, since Illya ignored him or growled in response. But the other night Napoleon hadn't been able to curb his tongue, and in the heat of passion had murmured a tender variant of his lover's name. Once, only once, he'd called him "Illyusha."
It wasn't really the same as calling him "Little Flower" or "Filthy"—the name had come spontaneously from Napoleon's lips, as it had the first time he'd made love to Illya, that golden evening in Puerto Caldo. It was a sweet sound, "Illyusha," and Napoleon supposed he must have heard it somewhere. But the immediate reaction had been startling, to say the least. Illya, lip curled, had pulled back instantly. Did this diminutive of his name mean Napoleon thought him a child? he demanded. Was he treating him as one of his stable of silly women? Did Napoleon think he needed to have sweet nothings whispered in his ear?
Napoleon had laughed uneasily and apologized quickly, eager to return to more pleasurable activities. But later, when Illya had fallen asleep, Napoleon wondered at the vehemence of his reaction.
Napoleon sighed and pulled over to the curb, reminding himself once more that pushing Illya to admit his feelings would certainly serve only to distance him. He'd tried that once before and almost lost him, hadn't he? He wasn't ready to try again. So, what to do? He had no answer except to leave things as they were. But the issue was on his mind, permanently nested there, or so it seemed.
For the moment he pushed it slightly aside and got out of the car. He took in a lungful of crisp October air and crossed the sidewalk.
"Fancy meeting you here."
Napoleon stopped with one foot on the step down to Del Floria's, and set his smile before turning. "Well. Look what the wind has blown my way."
"I hope you don't think it's an ill wind, Napoleon."
He inclined his head infinitesimally. "More like a hurricane, if I know my Angelique."
Her beautiful face made a little moue of discontent. "A hurricane? Should I be insulted?"
Napoleon stepped back up onto the sidewalk to lean against the stone railing, making a mental note to pay more attention to his surroundings when approaching UNCLE headquarters. "Certainly not. I just mean you're a force to be reckoned with."
She smiled at him, peering sideways from under her lashes. False lashes, if he wasn't mistaken; falseness certainly suited her. "I think I shall take it as a compliment then, mon cher."
"Do, please." His eyes flicked over the perfect example of female pulchritude lounging ever so casually against his convertible. Her pale champagne hair and white dress against the light blue of the Caddy made the entire scene resemble an ad from a glossy magazine. "So, Angelique, a little bird, a little THRUSH to be exact, tells me this is hardly a coincidental encounter."
"Really, darling," Angelique cooed. "I honestly don't believe you trust me." She pouted out her perfect lower lip.
"'Honestly' is not a word I'd apply to you, actually," Napoleon said, smiling charmingly to smooth the insult, while part of his brain considered her lip, comparing it unfavorably to the lower lip of another blond of his intimate acquaintance. He wondered idly how that other blond would react to Angelique's presence. Probably it was for the best that he and Illya were taking care to arrive separately these days.
"Insult after insult. And after I've come all this way to bring you a present." She uncoiled from her carefully arranged pose and undulated towards him.
"I hope it's not another one of your little pets. I'm afraid that spider you gave me last time met with an untidy end."
"No doubt at the hands of that humorless machine you call your partner." She reached over to adjust his lapel and Napoleon tried not to flinch. The memory was all too clear of Angelique pinning a deadly boutonniere on him.
Her hands were still on his lapel and Napoleon removed them gently. "Humorless? Not at all. Once you get to know Mr. Kuryakin, he's a very funny fellow."
She took a step back, her smile never wavering. "Hmph. I'll pass on getting to know him, if you don't mind. But don't you want to know what I've brought you, darling?"
"I know I'm dying of curiosity."
Napoleon kept his face neutral as Angelique spun around to look at the source of the voice. Illya was standing a mere foot behind her, and Napoleon knew she hadn't heard him approach. Of course, he hadn't seen him approach either, until Illya was nearly upon them, something he wouldn't be admitting any time soon.
"Well?" Illya bit off the word tersely.
When she looked back to Napoleon Angelique's eyes briefly glittered with ice. "Call off your dog, Napoleon, or I'm leaving. And you won't get your present." With that she turned her back deliberately on Illya, as if he no longer existed. "And you will want this present, I assure you."
The two men's eyes met; Illya scowled and moved away to lean against the car, filling the space Angelique had vacated. "All right. You have my attention," Napoleon said, no longer smiling.
"Something very unpleasant is about to happen, Napoleon," Angelique murmured, hardly above a whisper. "From THRUSH Central. Something very, very big, and very nasty."
Napoleon narrowed his eyes. "You'll pardon my skepticism, Angelique, but the day hasn't yet arrived that you sell out THRUSH to UNCLE. You're much too committed to ruling the world."
"Darling, I have no objection to ruling the world. But that assumes there's something left worth ruling, something that bears a resemblance to the world to which I've grown accustomed."
He felt a cold finger roll up his spine. "That bad?"
"Pretend you're going to sneeze."
"Just do it, please, Napoleon."
Obviously she felt they were under observation. "All right."
He let his nose wrinkle as though a sneeze was coming, and Angelique opened her tiny white handbag and pulled out a crumpled handkerchief. "Judge for yourself, Napoleon," she said quietly, thrusting it into his hands.
"Achoo," he enunciated clearly, and mimed sneezing.
She gestured "keep the handkerchief," and dropped her voice. "Be careful. Do you understand me?"
"Your concern touches me deeply, Angelique." He dabbed at his nose and shot a look at his partner. Illya immediately straightened and crossed the sidewalk to stand behind Angelique's shoulder.
She glanced briefly at Illya, then turned back to Napoleon. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to you, darling."
"How kind of you."
"Well, three's a crowd, so. I must be going." Angelique leaned in to plant a kiss on Napoleon's cheek. Behind her, Illya's expression remained cool.
"Goodbye, Angelique," Napoleon said, without a trace of warmth.
"Ta-ta, darling." She spun on her heel and exited, detouring around his partner, who stubbornly refused to shift out of her way.
Illya frowned at him. "You'd better give me that, Napoleon. Of course, for all we know it's saturated with contact poison and you're already dead."
"She had it in her hands first, so I doubt that."
"The creature was wearing gloves. I'm amazed you didn’t notice, the way she was pawing you."
Napoleon looked into severe blue eyes. "My, you are jealous, aren't you?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Illya muttered, opening the door to Del Floria's.
"No, really, I'm flattered," he said in his most sincere voice.
Illya shushed him, scowling, and they went inside.
"The handkerchief contained a capsule." Illya said, tossing the lab report onto the round table.
"What were the alarms about?" Napoleon asked.
"I trust you took precautions with it, Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly clamped his pipe more tightly between his teeth. "I hardly need tell you I distrust that young woman's motives."
"So do we all sir," Illya replied, looking pointedly at Napoleon.
"Why, ah, yes, I completely agree," Napoleon said. He couldn't resist an impish grin at Illya as Waverly picked up the report and started thumbing through it. "Um, the alarms I heard. . .?"
"It contained a fine powder," Illya said, ignoring him, "the chemical formula of which is yet to be determined. Chemical and Physics are working on it, in strictest isolation. We have ascertained that it has no radioactive or explosive qualities."
"That is fortunate," Waverly commented.
"Unfortunately, more extensive testing is virtually impossible. The moment the powder was exposed to air, it froze the receptacle in which it was contained. The freezing continued exponentially, spreading outward in a roughly circular pattern, reforming everything it touched into crystals."
Adrenaline kicked up a notch in Napoleon's bloodstream. "How far did it go?"
"We nearly lost Isolation Lab 2."
"Good Lord." Waverly's bushy brows knit together.
"Ah. Hence the alarms," Napoleon said.
Illya continued grimly. "We managed to stop it by pumping all the air from the chamber. Otherwise there's no telling how far it would have continued. Indefinitely, perhaps."
"Was anyone. . ." Napoleon let the question drop off. He had a sudden image in his mind of frozen lab rats. Frozen technicians. Frozen, dead-- Oh, God. Illya--
"No, no one was injured. It transformed metal, glass and plastic, fusing it all together. It had an equal effect on vegetable fiber; Dr. Haouli's crocus was destroyed. But there is as yet no information on what would happen if it came in contact with a human being. There was no time to try with a test animal."
"Just as well," Napoleon said under his breath. Illya raised an eyebrow at him. "Is it contained now? Or is it going to start again if you let air back in?"
"No." Illya tapped his reading glasses on the report. "We found the vacuum rendered the previously active powder permanently inert. The capsule was like a bomb waiting to go off, but once it had done so, it was stopped permanently by removing all the air. And I mean air, not just oxygen. Depriving it of oxygen alone had no effect. It reacted only to the removal of a normal atmosphere.."
"But. . ." Napoleon said, "If this thing were exposed outside, in the open air, how would you stop it?"
"How indeed," said Illya.
A heavy silence fell around the table.
"No wonder Angelique was worried," Napoleon murmured.
"The question, gentlemen, becomes how to stop this before it is released."
"Angelique has left us a clue, if we may trust her," Illya said. "Which I am not entirely certain we can. In between the layers of thin fabric was sewn a microdot. Enlargements of the text are in the file."
"Yes, yes, and I see there is a photo." Waverly put it on the table and rotated it to Napoleon. "What do you make of that, Mr. Solo?"
"It looks like. . .some sort of lab. In a rural setting, if the window is any indication." He picked up the photo. "Snow outside. A winter scene."
"Not necessarily," Waverly demurred. "In the mountains, or the far north, there can be snow nearly any time. Or perhaps in the deep Southern Hemisphere—"
"I believe, sir," Illya interrupted, "that it was taken somewhere to the east. The Soviet Union, to be exact." Both men looked at him. "The man in the foreground has been identified as Nikola Holodny. He's a Hungarian national recruited by the Soviet Union several years ago. A researcher at the Ministry of Science, with highest clearance. But the KGB suspects he's also working for THRUSH."
Napoleon looked at Illya. "The KGB?"
"Well," Illya said slowly. "I know people who know people."
"Quite," Waverly said shortly.
"But that's not the interesting part. He's using Russian equipment—you can see the mark on the oscillator if you look with a magnifying glass, 'Sdelannyi v Novosibirskye.'"
"'Made in New Siberia,'" Napoleon translated, pleased his faulty grasp of Russian extended that far. "Didn't that used to be 'New Nicholas,' after Nicholas II?"
"Yes. You can understand the need to rename it."
"Well, of course." Napoleon couldn't keep a slight smirk off his face.
"And are you saying the photo is from Novosibirsk, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Siberia may be the location, sir, but I would suggest the town of Izledovangorod."
"Have I heard that name before?" Napoleon asked.
"You would if you read scientific journals, Napoleon."
"I read them," Napoleon protested. Illya's look brimmed with skepticism. "Sometimes."
"Then of course you know it's a new town, literally 'Research City,' built from scratch in 1958, and that since then it has become a center of Soviet scientific education. Mikhail Alexeyevich Formentov, a physicist and mathematician, was one of the initiators and the first Chairman of the Siberian Division of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Science. He and a group of prominent scientists—Lavrentyev, Sobolev, Khristianovich and others—played a decisive role in attracting gifted researchers from the western regions to the development of Siberian science. Formentov was very enthusiastic about the new center of Science. The deep faith in the idea made him and others move to Siberia and start a completely new enterprise."
Napoleon watched his usually poker-faced partner grow in enthusiasm as the story unfolded. He wasn't used to seeing him this way, except, of course, when they were in bed together. Napoleon smiled inwardly at a memory—on their first meeting he'd imagined the serious Russian devoid of passion, and feared that the lack would prevent a successful partnership. Laughable, really, in retrospect.
In fact, over the last month their working relationship had been as good as it had ever been—possibly better than before they'd become involved. Each seemed more attuned to the other, ready to respond to danger as if a sixth sense had been added. Perhaps it was like a one-eyed person suddenly receiving the gift of binocular vision. Napoleon's perspective had changed, and, he imagined, so had Illya's. They saw things from new and clearer angles these days.
Their personal and business lives, though intertwined, outwardly were kept strictly separate. If Illya of late had found fewer reasons to pursue solo assignments—no pun intended—Napoleon was more than content to have his partner continuously at his side. Evidently Illya felt the same way; the last time Napoleon had been ordered on a mission by himself, Illya had found a reason to accompany him, and had actually taken heat from Waverly for doing so.
The partner in question was saying his name, and Napoleon snapped to attention.
"—and I'm certain Mr. Solo can tell you that VEP-1, the first accelerator with colliding beams in the world, was been built in Izledovangorod in 1961. Oh, 'VEP' means 'colliding electron beams' in Russian, Napoleon."
"Oh, does it," Napoleon muttered back. Revenge will come, my fine Russian, he thought savagely.
"Yes, well, that's perhaps more than we need know, Mr. Kuryakin."
"But just because that piece of equipment was made in Siberia, it doesn't necessarily follow that the photo was taken in Izledovangorod, or even Siberia, for that matter. The U.S.S.R. has allies with whom it trades."
"True, sir. But there are references throughout the document to 'Ivory Tower'—" Illya leaned over their superior's shoulder—"here, for example, and here." Napoleon got up and peered from the other side. "In context, it is clear that "Ivory Tower' is THRUSH's code name for the project. I would suggest that THRUSH looks upon the academic setting as a sort of 'ivory tower,' a rather unrealistic locale, to their philistine minds, untouched by the vagaries of a very real world. Besides," he added, stepping back to address both men, "Izledovangorod was built on the foundations of a tiny town known for one famous landmark. The Church of Svyatoy Basil No longer used for religious purposes, of course," he hastened to add.
"Of course not," Napoleon said without irony.
"But it had one famous architectural feature: Belaya kolokol'nya. The white bell tower."
"I see," Waverly said. "Well, gentlemen, at the very least that seems a place to start."
"What?" Illya said, barely looking up from his paper.
"What do you mean, 'what?'"
"I mean, what do you want? You're staring. Go back to ogling the stewardess and let me read."
Napoleon feigned insult. "You wound me. Have you looked at the stewardess? This airline must hire them by the pound. Lucky for them they got the Jumbo Economy size."
"You're speaking of the flower of Soviet womanhood. On behalf of the people of the U.S.S.R., I should be insulted."
"Hmm. Besides, the Giantess notwithstanding, aren't you the same Napoleon Solo who once said, 'There's something irresistible about a woman in uniform?'"
"Or a man," Napoleon dropped his voice to a husky whisper.
Illya's eyes snapped up and the newspaper went down on his lap. "I should have known that's what this is all about."
Napoleon grinned at him. Illya was attired in the uniform of a captain in the Soviet Navy, and Napoleon thought he looked very smart, indeed. "What can I say? The navy from the motherland has landed and I surrender."
"Imbecile," Illya said, but he hid a smile.
"You've conquered me! Aren't you going to bang your shoe and shout, 'We will bury you?'"
Illya stopped smiling.
Napoleon's communicator beeped. He slid out of the seat and pushed his way into a tiny lavatory before extricating the pen from his pocket. "Solo here."
"Mr. Solo?" Waverly crackled through the communicator. "Are you in a secure location?"
Napoleon wrinkled his nose at the pungent odor around him, and steadied himself as the plane changed altitude. "Secure enough, sir, though not particularly pleasant."
"Well, try and endure, will you? We have some information for you. . ."
His trip back down the aisle was impeded as the hefty stewardess blocked him bodily and fixed him with an unblinking stare. "My sobirayems'a prizemlyatye sya. Vozvratitesye k vashemu mestu, gospodinu!"
"Um, certainly, fair lady." Romance languages were Napoleon's forte; his Russian was terrible, and other than the word "Mister" said in a commanding tone, he hadn't caught her meaning. He slathered on the charm. "If you'll pardon me. . ."
"Menya zovut Olga. Ya hochu imetye vashih mladentsev," she said, and now she was simpering at him.
"Sit down, we are about to land," Illya's dry voice said behind him.
"Is that what she. . ."
"That, and 'my name is Olga, I want to have your babies.'"
"You're making that up."
"That won't help you. No doubt she's a good Soviet atheist." Illya turned towards him, dropping his voice. "What did Waverly want?"
"Well, evidently a few of our fine feathered friends have been seen crossing the border into Russia, heading for parts east. Several members of THRUSH Central. And the lovely Angelique."
"How delightful," Illya growled. "I do hope she remembered to pack her fur-lined stiletto pumps."
Napoleon laughed. Illya scowled.
They'd come in on false papers, to avoid embarrassment for the Soviet government (or, as Napoleon assumed, to avoid interference from it) but at Novosibirsk a U.S. diplomatic passport for "Llewellyn Forbush" of the U. S. Department of the Interior did little to ease Napoleon's way into Siberia. Met with suspicion, questions, a little shoving masquerading as an accident and muted curse words and snarls, he would no doubt have ended up detained and questioned, despite his alleged status, except for the adamant insistence of the angry Soviet Naval officer at his side. Illya hammered away at the bureaucratic suspicion surrounding them, barking rapid-fire Russian at an assortment of officials who seemed unwilling to admit an American citizen into the vastness of the Soviet interior without interrogating him, or at least examining his luggage. The words flew too fast for Napoleon to follow. Despite Illya's tenacity, it was not until he dropped a significant phrase that the official in charge conceded the field.
They moved away from the desk and Napoleon whispered furiously to his partner. "I know my Russian is rusty, but did you just tell them you're GRU?"
"Your Russian is worse than rusty, but yes, I did say that. Don't look at me like that, Napoleon. It worked, didn't it?"
"Yes, but. . ." How to ask this. . . "Are you with the military police? Or. . .KGB?"
"Of course not. I'm with you."
"Ha ha. I mean, before you came to the U.S.—were you with them? You seem to know people—"
"Napoleon," Illya said with some annoyance. "I hardly see how that matters now."
Not a definitive no. Interesting. Napoleon let the matter drop, but as they stepped out of the airport to hail a cab, he picked up the thread again. So far Illya had been imperturbable as always, totally focused on their mission, but Napoleon had to wonder if it was odd for him to be back in the U.S.S.R.. Certain no one was within eavesdropping distance, he put a hand on Illya's shoulder. "It occurs to me that in our entire time together, you've told me less than nothing about your life before you joined UNCLE."
Illya shrugged off the hand and looked around him with suspicion. "Napoleon," he said in a harsh whisper, "Is it not enough you know the places on my body where your touch will drive me insane?"
That caused a flush to radiate up from Napoleon's groin, but he knew Illya was just trying to divert him. Napoleon did not intend to be diverted. "I just thought, here you are, home again, and—"
"—I am not home, Napoleon," Illya said sharply. "Get that idea out of your mind."
Napoleon blinked at the vehemence in his voice. "And why is that?"
"Why is what?"
"Why don't you consider this home? I mean, I know it's Siberia, and you're from the Ukraine, but it's all the Soviet Union, so surely there's a sense of returning to your roots—"
"—I have no roots. Now if you don't mind, I see a taxi, and you need to keep silent, because the driver is no doubt an informant of the KGB that so interests you."
So Napoleon let it drop, again.
From the air, the Siberian countryside had looked spare, with patches of dense pine forest and occasional farms dotting the snowy earth. In character as a diplomat, Napoleon wondered aloud—for the cabby's benefit—just how farmers scrabbled a living from this barren terrain.
And Illya, in character as his guide and military escort, reminded him in a superior tone that these were collective farms and no one would be allowed to starve in the U.S.S.R..
"Ah," said Napoleon. Illya's act was a good one, all pride and arrogance and superiority over the decadent American way of life. And Napoleon found himself wondering what Illya really felt, in the deepest part of his being, about America, and about Americans. It was funny, wasn't it, and rather odd, that despite their alleged intimacy they'd never fully discussed their political views. He turned and contemplated Illya's profile, as his partner looked out the window at his homeland.
I have no roots, he'd said.
That made Napoleon profoundly sad. True, his own family was scattered now, and he'd moved around as a child, but still he could point to places like Westport, Connecticut, where he'd spent summers with his Aunt Amy, or Haddon, Kansas, where he'd gone to high school and had his first real girlfriend, or the waters off Northern California, where he'd learned to sail under the direction of his maternal grandfather. Those places held memories for him, even if the people were long gone, and he still felt connected to them. To think that Illya had no such feeling for any place, or any person—it was unimaginable.
In fact, there was a great deal he didn't know about his partner, even after all this time. Before now, he'd never felt the need to inquire; he'd taken him at face value, taken their professional relationship for granted. Clearly Illya believed in UNCLE and in his working partnership with Napoleon, so it had seemed unimportant that one of them came from a democracy and the other from a communist state. It hadn't mattered to Napoleon for the entire length of time they'd been partnered that Illya occasionally sniped about America's class system and he in turn mocked Illya's proletarian tastes. It hadn't mattered that they were from nations that were constantly teetering on the raw edge of the Cold War.
Or maybe it had mattered. He realized, with a flash of shame, that he'd ignored the issue of their nationalities because he simply didn’t want to think about it. He'd never wanted to think about Illya in that way. As an enemy. As the "other."
It came to him, bouncing in the spring-less back seat of the taxicab, that now he was ready to find out everything he'd studiously ignored for two years, even if it hurt to do so. He yearned to know everything about his partner, little things, big things, the vast number of details that made Illya who he was. Sure, he could tell you what music Illya liked, and he could predict with certainty what Illya would choose from a menu, or which side of the bed he preferred. He knew what Illya liked when they were in that bed together, what made him moan, what made him catch his breath and tremble. He'd mapped every scar, every birthmark and stretch of skin of Illya's body, but what of his soul? What did he believe in? UNCLE? Marxism? Socialism? Nothing? More importantly, what made him the man he was? What had he been like as a child? What was his family like? Did he have siblings? Who were his past lovers? What did he want from life?
The intensity of his thoughts shook him, as did the sheer number of unanswered questions. A helluva time to be thinking about this, Napoleon! Dammit. Why did these questions have to become important now?
There was only one possible conclusion. He'd known for weeks that this was more than another of his casual affairs. He'd even admitted to himself that he might be in over his head. But sitting here in the harsh Siberian light, watching the cold wind ruffle Illya's hair, Napoleon knew his feelings went far, far deeper even than that. He was profoundly, irrevocably, desperately in love.
He tossed that idea around his mind for a moment, let his brain and his heart savor what it felt like to be in love—not only that, but to be in love with a man—and to top it all off, a man who happened to be his socially awkward, perpetually difficult, constantly irritating partner.
Napoleon leaned back heavily against the cracked leather seat. I am in love with Illya.
As revelations went, it actually was singularly unsurprising. In fact, he felt fine. He felt better than fine. He felt great.
All well and good, but what of Illya's heart and mind? No matter what he suspected, or what he hoped was true, the reality was he had no accurate information on what Illya felt about him. He sighed heavily. Illya heard him, and turned to look, eyes narrowing.
"Eto mesto, tovarischi," said the driver. "V gostinice."
"We are here," Illya said stiffly, completely in character.
Napoleon mentally shook himself out of his thoughts. The cab screeched to a stop in front of a rather mediocre-appearing edifice that belied the name "Hotel Superior." They gathered their few bags, went inside, registered, went to their rooms. . .
. . .and promptly made "Llewellyn Forbush, U.S. diplomat" and "Capt. Yevgeny Kurmatsov, U.S.S.R. Navy," disappear.
Sixty miles from Novosibirsk, the scientific community of Izledovangorod rose like a city of the future out of the snowy rural landscape. To Napoleon, the shining towers and glass-sided buildings looked like nothing so much as an exhibit from the current New York World's Fair mistakenly plopped down in the Russian steppes.
From their perch on one of the highest buildings, they had a perfect view of the town. Far beyond the grid that made up the city center of Izledovangorod, the famous white onion dome of the Church of St. Basil glinted in the thin sunlight. At the other end of the town was the building containing Nikola Holodny's office. They'd been on a rooftop across from it for hours, and Napoleon was chafing under the forced inactivity. The fact that the temperature hovered around 20 degrees Fahrenheit did nothing to improve his mood. It wasn't exactly snowing, just weeping occasional dribs of sleet which slithered down his face and under his collar. Snow in October. Yeesh.
Sleet. Snow. . .
The white surrounding them made Napoleon's mind stray to THRUSH's lethal substance. Incredible, that something existed that could freeze everything in its path. What would the world be like if it got loose? Starvation, destruction, worldwide genocide. . . The shiver that shook him had nothing to do with the temperature.
"Over there," Illya's voice said suddenly, "See? Next to the Akademiya Zemnyh Nauk--"
"The whatsis?" He banged his hands together, trying to restore circulation.
"The enormous concrete and glass high rise."
"Which enormous concrete and glass high rise?"
"The one across Bulyevar Geroyev."
"The wide street with the trees in the middle, Napoleon. The Academy of Terrestrial Sciences. The building we've been watching since noon."
"Sorry. My brain is freezing. Damn, it's cold."
"This? I find it rather balmy."
"You're balmy, that's what. What am I supposed to be seeing?"
"Getting out of the black Lada. . ."
"All Ladas are black."
"Your sarcasm regarding Soviet automobiles and architecture is duly noted, so you may drop the pose of obnoxious American. If you can. Hmm. Nikola Holodny has interesting friends."
"Your admirer Angelique, for one. Another woman I don't recognize. A big fellow, a guard, perhaps. And Gustave Teckler."
"The ex-Nazi? Head of THRUSH Eastern Europe? Really. Give me those." Napoleon took the binoculars and focused them across the boulevard. "Well, will you look at that. I thought UNCLE Northeast had him in custody."
"He was part of a trade, as I remember."
"Good grief. What was Beldon thinking, letting him go?"
"Keep watching the office window. I want to know when they get there." Illya was doing something with his scope that absorbed his total attention.
"Yes, comrade captain." Napoleon grinned, which made his frozen face muscles ache. "Hello, here we go."
Illya crawled up next to him, bringing warmth to Napoleon's right side. He wondered briefly if there'd be a nice warm interlude in their future, tonight, if possible, but that probably was wishful thinking. It looked to be a long, long, night, and a cold one, and he groaned inwardly at the thought of a warm bed, and his partner's hot body. Like last night, when he'd been awakened by Illya licking him all over, like a hungry tiger--
He stopped the moan before it escaped his lips, and his cock twitched at the memory. He sighed. Better stop thinking about these things or he was going to be cold and uncomfortable.
"Holodny doesn't look happy," Illya said, watching the window through his telescopic sight.
"What I wouldn't give to hear what Teckler's saying. Can you lip read?"
"No, but I can interpret their gestures. He's very, very annoyed, and poor Holodny is very, very afraid."
"Hmm. Angelique is pretty quiet, looks like."
"Mm, yes, well, you would be watching her, wouldn't you?" Illya muttered. "Who's that other woman, do you think?"
"No idea. Maybe Teckler brought his wife along."
"Like on a vacation?"
"Wait a bit, they're moving."
The pair of agents watched as the THRUSH entourage and their seemingly unwilling associate exited the building and stood arguing on the sidewalk for a minute. The THRUSH goon grabbed Holodny by the shoulder and started towing him to the parked sedan. "Trouble in paradise?"
"Looks like they're all going somewhere," Illya murmured in Napoleon's ear, "Do you want to stick to Plan A, or shall we follow them?"
"Hmm. . .how about I follow them and you sniff around Holodny's office."
"I think we should stay together."
"No," Napoleon said. "I need you to look for Holodny's notes. I'll follow them, but for all we know, they may all just be going out to dinner."
"All right," Illya said, sounding dubious. But he slid back from the edge and started gathering his things. "Keep in touch."
"Don't I always?"
"No," Illya said, matter-of-factly. "Don't make me come after you."
"You have that backwards. I'm always coming after you, tovarishch."
A black-gloved hand closed on Napoleon's forearm. He looked up to find a severe expression glaring back. "I'm serious, Napoleon. Be careful."
It was on the tip of his tongue to make a joke, but something about Illya's face made Napoleon hold back. "I will," he promised, closing his own gloved hand over Illya's and squeezing it hard. Illya nodded once and vanished over the edge of the building.
The group on the sidewalk was piling into the Lada. Napoleon headed for the stairs.
Darkness was falling, though it was barely four o'clock. Illya pressed himself further into the far wall of the office, away from the curtainless windows, and applied himself to picking the lock of Nikola Holodny's wall safe. The office itself scarcely looked as if it had been touched, but in fact he'd spent the better part of an hour rummaging through documents, looking under furniture, checking pockets in Holodny's lab coat and rifling through his desk. So far his search had uncovered Holodny's day-to-day work for the Akademiya Zemnyh Nauk, but nothing of his other research. If there was anything significant worth finding, it had to be in the safe.
It was clear that any super-secret work the scientist was undertaking was being done elsewhere. Illya had strolled unnoticed through the corridors of the Akademiya by assuming the demeanor of a harmless graduate student, just one of many passing in the halls. It was much the way he'd escaped notice back at Cambridge. In glancing into the laboratories as he passed, he noticed each was monitored by cameras. Illya smiled mirthlessly. He knew very well that in this suspicious land someone was always watching. If Holodny was doing secret work for THRUSH, he wasn't doing it here.
One more turn, the lock clicked, the knob turned easily in his hand, and the safe popped open, revealing more papers. He grabbed one, but though his eyes scanned the page, his mind was elsewhere. He really wanted to call Napoleon, who hadn’t checked in yet, but there was no telling if he was in a place where the communicator's beep would go unheard. It rankled him that Solo had separated them, even though it made complete sense. But a pall of unease hung over him, leaving him profoundly disquieted. He should have insisted on accompanying Napoleon.
He'd felt a sense of foreboding since the moment they'd touched down, an inexplicable jittery sensation that had grown with every moment they stayed. And now he was sure of it: something terrible was happening, or about to happen.
He checked his watch. Fifty-seven minutes since they'd parted on the roof. Why hadn't Napoleon checked in to say where the THRUSH car was headed? Illya hissed in annoyance. "Where are you, Napoleon?"
He forced himself to pay attention to the contents of the safe. It didn't yield any information on the freezing-substance, but it did tell him Holodny was making far more money than the usual pay of a government-sponsored researcher. A huge pile of bank notes, in the currency of several nations, filled a locked box at the rear of the safe; a bankbook for a numbered Swiss account was stuffed inside an envelope. The amount on deposit made Illya's eyes widen. "Nikola, you have been a very, very greedy boy."
The communicator clipped to his vest went off with a shrill beep. He snapped it open. "Napoleon, where are—"
"—Listen carefully," Napoleon said urgently. There were raised voices in the background, and the soft whirr of machinery. "There's not much time. I found the lab. They're fighting over—"
A man's voice was shouting. "Razve vy ne ponimayete to, chto vy delayete?" Do you realize what you're doing, Illya translated.
"Speak English. Or German, Dr. Holodny. Something civilized." Gustave Teckler, most likely.
"We're not under safe conditions here!" The heavily accented Dr. Holodny was tense with agitation. "You do not understand. If this is not controlled—"
"I thought you said it was completed." Teckler again.
"It is. But it is quite unstable. We don't have the counteracting measures completed yet. You can't let—"
"—THRUSH gave you until today. You said it would be ready for trials today. I'm sure you would hate for THRUSH Central to be disappointed." Another voice, female, and very, very cold. Not Angelique; the mystery woman, then.
"You might want to listen to him." That pseudo-British accent was Angelique. Illya raised his eyebrows. Daring to disagree with THRUSH Central? "I've seen the early results, and it's horrible. What if it did—"
"Be quiet!" The other woman. "You're on thin enough ice already."
"Illya," Napoleon's voice whispered into the communicator. "You won't believe who she is. It's—"
"Vy tam! Chto vy delayete zeds?'"
Illya's heart lurched. The voice was loud, and angry, and it was yelling What are you doing here? "Damn it!" Napoleon groaned. "I've got company—" Silence, but for the sound of running footsteps.
"Napoleon! Napoleon! Answer me!" Illya's heart was thudding now, sickeningly. He caught himself counting the seconds until Napoleon's voice came back.
"Illya—" Napoleon's breathless voice dissolved into a burst of static. "Need you to—" More static. Illya's hands clenched and unclenched. ". . .ivory tower. No time. You've got to get here—"
Illya gritted his teeth in frustration. "Come on, come on—"
To his relief, Napoleon's voice returned, but what he heard only confirmed his worst imaginings. "Oh, hi," Napoleon was saying, with the deliberate calm that meant he was in trouble. "You sure are a big fella. You're not by any chance with the Soviet Navy?"
There was a grinding noise and the communicator went silent.
Proklyanite eto k chertu! Damn it to hell!
He left the safe door wide open and bolted from the room. Let the authorities find the bankbook and the money. Let Nikola Holodny explain himself to the KGB. He didn't care. He didn't care about anything right now, except getting to Napoleon.
He was down the hall in seconds, his body carrying him away on autopilot, managing through instinct to keep from drawing attention. But inside, his mind was busy.
You're not by any chance with the Soviet Navy
I need your help, Illya. Now.
"It's been a while, Mr. Solo."
"Not long enough, Dr. Egret."
The brunette woman started a little at his remark. Then her far-too-perfect face pulled into a parody of a smile. "I'm impressed. What gave me away?"
"Well, your utter disregard for humanity was a pretty strong clue. Plus, I overheard Gustave here call you by name. I have to say, doctor, the makeover is excellent. As I recall you used to be a blonde," Napoleon flexed his muscles against the grip the THRUSH thug had on him, but to no avail. "Of course, I didn't have time to find out if you were a real blonde."
"Disgusting male." Egret curled her lip. With the swiftness of a striking viper she slapped him hard across the face.
"Well, okay then," Napoleon said, licking blood from the corner of his mouth. "I guess the date is off." He looked around. The vaulted wooden ceiling of the church crypt contrasted with the white sterility of the modern lab. "Nice set up you have here," Napoleon said casually. "The holy and the unholy, all under one roof."
"Shut him up." Teckler gestured and a beefy hand slammed over Napoleon's mouth. It smelled of garlic and gun oil and coupled with the residual dizziness from Egret's blow, forced Napoleon to sway with nausea. "We'll deal with him later. Now, Dr. Holodny. I want to see what we've been paying you for."
"But I'm telling you, Herr Teckler—" The scientist was visibly trembling. His eyes kept straying to the small stoppered beaker on a lab table next to him. "Can't we postpone just a bit? I'm certain by next week—"
"Now. Or I will shoot you and have Dr. Egret conclude the test."
Holdony's eyes were terrified. His voice crept into a nasal whine. "No, please. The isolation room is not airtight, Herr Teckler. I beseech you not to—"
"Enough!" A shot rang out and Angelique, standing well to the side of the small group, gave a little yelp. Napoleon's eyes turned to her, and then to the brunette woman. Smoke curled from the end of a snub-nosed revolver in Dr. Egret's hand. Her face remained impassive. "I can't abide weak men," she said coolly.
Holdony looked with surprise at the blossoming red stain on his lab coat. His right hand came up to clutch at his chest, and he made a gurgling noise deep in his throat. He started to fall, his left hand grabbing at the counter for support in the last act of his life.
And then it happened.
Napoleon watched, aghast, as Holodny scrabbled for purchase and hit the stoppered beaker by mistake, knocking it over. Time seemed to slow as the glass tilted, rolled across the counter, and fell over the side, hurtling towards the concrete floor.
There was another shriek from Angelique, more desperate, this time, a shouted curse from Teckler, and a surprised "What?" from Egret, who had turned away.
Teckler was the only one who moved. He lurched forward, sticking out both hands to try to catch the glass before it hit, but he wasn't fast enough. The glass shattered on the floor, breaking the vacuum seal and splashing the lab table and the dead scientist's leg, and spilling minute drops onto Gustave Teckler's shoes.
For a moment, no one breathed.
The results were terrifying in their swiftness. Tiny white crystals began to form on every surface the substance had splattered. The crystals grew towards each other, until they formed one white mass, which began to expand outward at an alarming rate. The white crept up the dead man's leg, transforming clothing and flesh alike into a frozen mass. It was, Napoleon thought, as if Holodny's corpse were slowly being changed into an ice sculpture.
"What's happening? For God's sake, what's happening?" Teckler yelled, backing away. But the circle of crystals pursued him, and the toes of his shoes had started to turn white as well.
"Take off your shoes!" Angelique cried. "Quickly!" Her face was a mask of horror. She withdrew from the crystals, moving closer to Napoleon. Teckler grabbed at his shoe, trying to wrench it off, but it wouldn't come off, and he inadvertently brushed against some of the crystals. Almost instantaneously the white stuff was also on his fingers. He tried to shake it off them, and when that didn't work, wiped his fingers against his pants, where it began to spread as well. A terrified mewling sound began deep in Teckler's throat.
Dr. Egret watched Teckler's contortions with an expression of intense fascination. "Remarkable," she said. "It's even converting human flesh." Napoleon swallowed the bile rising in his throat.
Next to the counter, Gustave Teckler opened his mouth and began to scream.
It was a sound of both abject terror and horrible anguish, and it struck Napoleon as cold as the slowly freezing dead body in front of him. Teckler was hopping as if he were barefoot on hot coals, then lost his balance suddenly and fell face forward onto Holodny's corpse. The crystals began their relentless crawl onto his face and when they reached his eyes his scream turned into a shriek, his whitening fingers clawing at his face, leaving rivulets of blood that swiftly turned to streaks of white.
The hand over Napoleon's mouth slipped as the man behind him twitched in terror at the horrifying sights and sounds. Napoleon wrenched himself sideways, slipping out of the thug's grasp to chop him on the neck. The man dropped in place like a sack of bricks.
He turned to find Angelique, arms wrapped around herself, staring at him imploringly. "Do something, Napoleon! Stop it!"
"We have to get the air out of the room."
"How are we going to do that?"
"I don't know, I don’t know." He picked up Teckler's briefcase. "Maybe there's something in here about it, or an air vent, or—"
Egret was pointing her gun at his heart.
"Don't be a fool," he said, fed up with her stupidity, fed up with THRUSH's insanity. "Do you want to die, doctor? Do you want to see the end of the world, or would you like to live a little while longer?"
She laughed, a barking sound like the bitch she is, Napoleon thought. "I'll survive. I always do."
"Not this time," Napoleon said savagely. "If you want to live, you'll figure out how to stop this."
"So sorry." She began to inch towards the door, keeping one eye on the encroaching crystals. Her gun wavered between the two of them.
"You can't leave me here!" Angelique shrieked. "I'm THRUSH, just like you!"
"No one is like me," Egret said. "And frankly, I don't like the competition."
"Competition won't matter, Dr. Egret," Napoleon rasped at her. "Everyone's as good as dead if we don't stop this."
She shrugged. "Good-bye, Angelique. Farewell, Mr. Solo." Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Napoleon threw the briefcase at her and flung himself sideways as the shot rang out. The briefcase deflected the shot from his heart, but the bullet caught him in the upper thigh, instantly numbing it. He fell heavily, pushing Angelique as he fell, both of them missing the expanding whiteness by the narrowest of margins. He rolled sideways. When he looked up, Dr. Egret had gone, leaving behind only a latex mask and a brunette wig.
He staggered to his feet, Angelique catching his arm to help him, which, under other circumstances, he would have found amusing. But the time for amusement was long past. "What stops the air?" he panted, looking around wildly. If only Illya were here, he'd know the answer, he'd have some scientific plan, some arcane knowledge to help stop this thing. But Illya wasn't here, and there was no telling if he would be. "Think, Angelique, think! Did they ever mention anything? Any counteragent?"
Angelique was moaning, staring at the crystals, which had now consumed most of the counter and both bodies. Teckler had stopped making noise, but his limbs still twitched. Napoleon tried not to look at him. "It can't be stopped, it can't, it can't—"
"For God's sake, Angelique!" Napoleon said harshly, his eyes scouring the lab for something, anything, to use. His gaze traveled over a fire extinguisher and inspiration struck. "What about carbon dioxide? Something that pulls the oxygen away from a fire, stops it from spreading—" The words died in his throat with a realization. Not a fire extinguisher--
"Fire—we can use fire to eat up the air! Find something to use as an accelerant." He moved toward another counter, limping badly as red-hot pain suddenly lanced up his hip. He bit his lip against the pain; this was no time to pass out. "Help me, Angelique, if you want to stop this! Do it! Now!"
His orders seemed to snap her out of her reverie. She found a container of liquid marked "flammable" and together they splashed it liberally on the creeping whiteness. A sheaf of papers from Teckler's briefcase was soaked with it.
"Will it work?" The THRUSH woman's voice trembled. She literally was wringing her hands.
"Let's hope so," he said, flicking his lighter. He touched it to the papers.
The room went up in a sheet of flame.
Illya ran the last half-mile up Formentov Prospekt toward the Church of Svyatoy Basil. The church and its famous white onion dome lay hidden around a curve at the top of a rise, but there was something about the light in the twilight sky, a strange glow over the top of the hill that looked wrong, very wrong, the kind of wrong that drew his heart into his throat and made the sweat on his body turn to ice. Adrenaline coursed through him. He rounded the last turn and skidded to a halt, his mind at first unable to process what he was seeing.
The tower was engulfed in flames.
A white landscape--
The sense of wrongness that had plagued him since they'd entered the country exploded within him, panicking him. "Napoleon!" he shouted into the wind.
--alone in the snowy landscape, a small building, old, made of wood--
The hill and its lonely church undulated before him, seeming to shift away as his sight telescoped. Nausea gripped him as he tried to move forward on legs that suddenly would not obey him. It was a living thing, this fire, a beast that sizzled and popped as it consumed the church with voracious hunger. Illya stared at it and was filled with dread, a stultifying, nameless dread that defied logic. He closed his eyes and shook himself hard. He had to go inside. If Napoleon was still in there--
It took an act of will but he made himself move. The slate sky was like a shroud over the scene; he felt its weight pressing on him, dragging him down. The powdery snow crunched underfoot like brittle bones being ground to dust. His legs carried him unsteadily on, until he was close enough to see that only the far half of the building was consumed, the ancient wood crackling as the orange flames licked at it. There was a door on this side, its peeling paint a blotchy, leprous red. All he had to do was get to the door, reach it, but
--the building recedes again, the ground sucks at his feet, slowing him until he can barely move--
He staggered forward, forcing himself towards the building, stretching out his hand until it closed on the iron handle. Suddenly the heavy door flew outward, nearly catching him a blow to the head. A figure hurtled out into the cold, smoke billowing behind her. Angelique.
Illya whipped around and grabbed her as she tried to push past him. He registered her labored breathing, the terror in her eyes. He didn't care. "Where is he? Where's Napoleon?"
"He's. . .he's. . . " Her eyes, wild and huge, finally fixed on him. "It got out. . .spreading. He started the fire to kill it."
"Napoleon!" he shouted at her, shaking her so hard her head bobbed on her shoulders. She was coatless and wore no shoes. He didn't care if she froze to death. "What happened to him?"
"Shot. Dr. Egret. Couldn't, couldn't get up the stairs. I tried to help, I tried—"
"Oh, I'm certain you tried," Illya spat at her. Shot, Napoleon shot. How bad? His heart thudded against his chest. Napoleon shot, perhaps dead, perhaps not, perhaps burning alive--
A smoldering corpse--
He shuddered. "Take me to him!"
"I won't go back in there!"
"You will!" Illya spat. "And he'd better be alive, or I swear I will shoot you, too!"
She threw her head back. "Go ahead! I'm not going back. What if it's still there? What if it's still spreading—" She struggled against him and he held on tightly. "Let me go!"
Pozvolyte mne idti! the boy is crying, Let me go!
Illya's head whipped around. Another voice was shouting the same words, a child's voice, but in the gathering gloom he saw no one other than the two of them. Angelique was struggling again, begging him to let her go, but he ignored her pleas. He threw the door open again, dragging her with him, but at the last moment she twisted sideways, wrenching from his grasp. She backed away, her face triumphant, and then turned to flee down the hill. There was no question of following; his mission lay before him, not with her capture. He took a deep breath and went through the door.
The heat hit him like a juggernaut, forcing him back a step. The smell of charring wood was overpowering, overlaid with the mixed odors of metal and chemicals, and the sharp tang of burning electrical wires. The oily soot drew into his nose and mouth with every choking breath, coating his palate. The far wall was on fire, the leaded glass windows buckling and popping out, crashing to the floor, but the smoke mainly seemed to come from a dark doorway beyond the altar. Illya crossed the nave, obstacles block the boy's way, gouges in the earth, barbed wire, broken furniture, taking care to avoid the broken wooden pews piled haphazardly about the space. The crucifix was long gone from the altar, as was the icon of Sacred Basil, but a lone saint carved into the wall stared back at him, its blind eyes accusing.
He stepped onto the raised altar and stopped, reeling, catching himself on the altar rail. The smell was all around him, the scent of wax, and his reason told him it was merely the old drippings from centuries of candle wax melting as the wood burned, but
Nyet! Svecha! Svecha! Svecha!
A young voice, the child again, the boy is crying in terror and remorse, and what did it mean, "the candle, the candle?" Illya scanned the debris-strewn church but couldn't see a boy, couldn't tell where the crying was coming from. Behind him a beam crashed deafeningly to the floor and spewed flames onto the tinder of the wooden pews. He blinked and let go of the rail, making his way to the doorway. "Napoleon!" he yelled into the inky blackness, "Napoleon! Can you hear me?"
There was no answer. The door opened onto a staircase; deep below, faint light from the flames glimmered through the obscuring smoke. There might be signs of life down there, or merely bodies, Napoleon's among them. There was no way to tell from here.
He took in a lungful of the thick air and descended into hell.
The passageway was black with smoke, and with each step down the creaking, moaning staircase the air grew hotter, fouler. Impossible, it was impossible to see what lay below him. He yelled out again, fighting a coughing jag. "Napoleon!" the boy is calling again, begging, crying in desperation, Let me go to them, Pozvolyte mnye idti k nim! Ya ne ghotel delatye eto! I did not mean to do it! His eyes burned and watered, stung by the ash-filled air. It was impossible, but he had to keep going; Napoleon was down here, somewhere, and he needed to find him, he needs to find them. The boy is crying, the boy does not want to wait, he will find them, he will save them, even though he is to blame--
Choking, throat swelling, he was suddenly unable to breathe. Something was happening to him, something terrible that he couldn't name, and the panic welled up, leaving him clinging to the stair rail until the vertigo passed. He moved again, slowly descending the staircase, feeling his way in the darkness, calling and calling until his throat hurt and he is hoarse with shouting after them, but they do not answer any more.
He stumbled a little, his ankle turning as something skittered by him and ran up the steps. A rat, perhaps, fleeing the inferno below. Another step, and another. The metal railing was scaldingly hot beneath his hand. Flames flickered and he caught a glimpse of something on the floor below, something charred that once was alive, something horrible that seemed to raise a hand in Death's salute, admonishing Ty ubiliih! you have killed them! and he cried out, slipping, falling, barely managing to catch himself as the railing came away from the wall, but still he felt as if he were descending, falling into a bottomless pit, falling forever. "Are you here! Please answer me!" but in response there was only an agonized scream from within the collapsing building, a woman's scream, Pomogitye nam! Pomogitye nam! My umirayem! Help us, we are dying, help us
"Illya, down here!"
A voice, a familiar voice! "Can't see you!" Illya shouted into the thick darkness, his pulse racing. "I can't see you, I can't reach you!" His voice sounded tight and shrill—there didn't seem to be enough air in his lungs and he is trying to reach them, but he can't get to them, the flames are too hot, the smoke too thick. His ankle ached and his hand burned from touching the red-hot iron railing and he is too small, too weak to fight the hands holding him back.
"I'm right here, Illya, right below you." There was a painful wheeze. "Tried to. . .stay near the floor."
"Just keep coming down."
He scrambled forward until his foot hit something soft. A hand grabbed his ankle. The panic settled a little as he squinted into face blackened by soot but grinning at him. "I knew you'd come."
"We have to go! We have to get out!"
"No. . .kidding. . . Help me. . ."
He leaned down, acting on instinct, groping in the darkness. He grabbed an arm and pulled, clutching a little too tightly at the body leaning heavily against him. Alive! "I've got you," Illya exulted, "I've got you, I've got you, I've—"
"—Yeah, you got me. Let's go."
There was a creak and the steps beneath them wavered. Illya coughed. "The stairs. . .not secure."
"We'll be careful, then."
Be careful, you must be careful, moya lyubov, put out the candle--
He faltered, and the weight in his arms shifted. He heard a hoarse exhalation followed by a curse. "Leg, numb, couldn't climb. . ." The words ended in a fit of choking. Illya said nothing. His eyes scanned the darkness, looking, searching. Where are they? The arm over his shoulders tightened as he pulled them both upwards, slowly, limping towards the pale rectangle of the door.
By the time they reached the top he was lightheaded with lack of oxygen. The stairs rumbled and sagged beneath them and as he pulled them both across the threshold, the steps collapsed into the pyre below. The body in his arms was dead weight, so he grabbed an arm and leg and hoisted his burden fireman-style, ignoring a grunt of protest. No time left, none at all.
He staggered under the heavy weight on his shoulders, struggling to breathe as he made his way through a nightmare scene from hell, a gauntlet of fallen beams and burning pews. Step by painful step, he drew them closer to safety.
A sharp crack above signaled the death of another window. He looked up, his vision swimming, and saw the window buckle, saw the shards of glass as they fell, saw the woman's silhouette in the window, the little girl, her nightdress aflame, the other boy, a baby, red flames crawling up into the cradle; the boy hears them dying, can smell them dying, and he wants to vomit, to die himself, and he screams Oni vnutri! Oni goryat! They are inside! They are burning! burning, burning alive--
The cold air was sharp as needles on Illya's scorched skin as he burst through the door to fall on his knees in the white snow. The other man rolled off his shoulders and came to rest several feet away on his back, where he lay panting. Red covered his left leg from knee to waist, the blood beginning to stain the pristine whiteness of the snow. Illya retched painfully for a few moments, bringing up bile from his guts and smoke from his tortured lungs. When he was done he pushed himself back, away from the blood, away from the snow, and turned his face towards the fire.
"I. . .knew. . ." There was a cough, loud and deep, and then the sound of lungs wheezing as they struggled to cope with clean air. "I knew you'd get here in time." Another cough. "Thanks."
Illya barely registered the words. Slowly, every muscle protesting, he staggered to his feet and stood there, weaving. His head throbbed. His throat was raw with shouting, constricted nearly to the point of closure. The fire was raging. There is no time. He took a shaky step, fell down, and struggled up again.
"Where are you going?" There was a rustling sound behind him. "I destroyed Holodny's crystals. I think I destroyed them. There's no need to—"
"—Ya dolzhen naijti ih," Illya said in a flat voice. "Oni vsye yesche vnutri. Oni goryat."
"What? Illya?" A painful grunt, and the crunch of something moving on the snow. "I didn't understand. What did you say?"
"I must find them. They are still inside." They are calling, shouting for help and the boy, he, he must find them. They are burning and he must help them--
"Find who? There's no one left alive down there, Illya, Teckler and Holodny are dead and Egret got away. And Angelique."
Illya shook his head impatiently at the meaningless words. He turned to see the man, whoever he was, trying to rise from the snowy ground. "Can't you hear them? Oni goryat!"
"'They. . .burn?' They're burning? Who? There's no one left!"
Illya's head pounded and he clapped his hands to his ears. How could the man not hear the screams? "Oni goryat!" He turned back to the fire.
There was a grunt of pain behind him, and then fingers latched onto his calf. They weren't strong, the fingers, but he was weak himself and they stopped him in his tracks. "You can't go back in there! Illya! Stop!" Boy, stop, boy! The old man, the neighbor, is holding him back, saying it's too late, you can't save them, they are beyond help.
"Let go of me! They are burning alive!"
"No!" There was a rough pull on his leg and Illya crashed down onto the snow, struggling violently against the hands holding him down. "Dammit! What's wrong with you? There's no one there! Illya!"
Illyusha! Illyusha! Help us!
"Liar! They are! Mischa i Katya i mama—" Katya, her nightdress aflame, Mischa in his cradle, the red flames climbing up the sides, Mama screaming through the window, help us, help us, Illyusha, get help, but "I can't! I can't—" He fought against the hands, the grip, but a body was atop him suddenly, holding him down. "Let me go! I have to save them!"
"Illya, Illya, for God's sake, what's going on? Who do you mean? There's no one!" Through blurry eyes Illya saw a soot-covered face, an expression of alarm. "It's all over. You saved me, remember? Remember? Illya, remember?" He was held flat against the snow, on his back, hands stretched out in the mockery of a cross. "Illya, listen to me—"
There is no time! Why wouldn't the man let him go? " I must go to them!" he shouted, and the boy was crying now, he was crying, the hot tears coursing down his cold face, leaving streaks in the dirt and soot, his voice tight and shrill, a child's voice, "Don't you understand? Eto moya oshibka! It's my fault! It's my fault!"
"What are you talking—"
"I didn't put out the candle!" Ne proveditye svechu, moyego malenykogo cheloveka, my little man, don't waste the candle "—She told me, but I didn't, I—"
"Who? Who told you?"
"—Mama, I was angry and I went to the river and then I heard it, there was exploding and the fire came!" He clutched the man by the shirt to stop his hands from shaking, but the shaking only got worse. "They were inside and I couldn't reach them, they were burning, all of them, the smell—I killed them! I couldn't save them! I couldn't save any of them! It's my fault, my fault, my—"
"Illya! Illya! Listen to me!" The old man is shaking him, the man was holding him, pulling him from the snow to hold him close, so close, against his heaving chest. "Please! Stop, Illya," the kind voice was saying to him, "That's not happening now. Whatever happened to you, Illya, I'm sorry, so sorry, but it's not happening. That was a long time ago. Now, right now, you saved me. Do you hear me? You did it. You saved me, Illya."
The voice was thick with emotion, and the arms that held him, cradled him, were soothing, rocking him like the arms of a father, or a mother. Or a lover. Familiar arms. Something broke inside him; he stopped struggling, and then he was weeping, crying for them all, for the mother and the daughter and the baby and for the boy he had been. The arms held him tightly and rocked him, as the voice kept speaking urgently in his ear. The strong arms, the voice, he knew them, they were familiar to him, as was the scent of the man, the warmth that enfolded him. "N. . .Napoleon?"
A soft voice in his ear. "Yes."
He shook violently as images rushed at him, flooding him. Fire, death, family. Ashes, all ashes. "What's happening?"
"Something terrible. I think it happened to you a long time ago, Illya. But it's over now."
But still, there was the cold reality. . ."My fault, my—"
The arms tightened around him. "No, no. It isn't. Listen to me, Illya. You pulled me out of the fire. You saved me. Do you understand? Here and now, Illya, you saved me."
"I. . .saved you." He clutched more tightly at the shirt. "I saved. . .Napoleon."
"Yes, yes, you did, Illya Nickovetch," the voice said, breaking. "You saved me. You always save me."
He released a shuddering breath and pressed his face against Napoleon's chest to feel the strong heart beat beneath his cheek.
And nothing was left but the roar of the fire, and the distant wail of sirens.
This time, there were no dreams.
Blistering heat, then cold, then warmth again. Dense blackness, then bright white light, sirens melting into voices, the stench of ashes and death, the sharp tang of alcohol, disinfectants, cleanliness.
The softness of snow. The softness of feathers.
Light faded in and out. And then in again.
He awakened slowly, his limbs heavy underneath the bedcovers, his jaw popping in an enormous yawn. He lay there taking in the new sounds, feeling disoriented, not yet willing to open his eyes. A man was talking, his voice quite familiar, but somewhat roughened.
"Yes, sir. Tomorrow morning, 0800 hours."
Illya came more fully awake, listening.
"Thank you. And thanks for the help with the Russians."
An odd, tinny voice followed. ". . .keep this confidential." It took Illya a moment to comprehend that it was Waverly, coming through Napoleon's communicator.
"Yes, sir, completely confidential, I understand." Napoleon coughed and cleared his throat and the oddness of his voice subsided somewhat. "Thank you again. Solo out." A click and a metallic slide punctuated the end of the conversation. "Hello there. Sleep well?"
Illya blinked his eyes open, not bothering to question how Napoleon knew he was awake. His throat ached abominably. Evidently a wood rasp had been dragged through it while he slept. He tried to speak and fell into a coughing spasm.
"It's from all the smoke. There's water next to the bed."
The cool water from the ceramic mug felt wonderful on his seared throat. Illya scanned the room, searching for familiarity, but found none, except in the gently amused expression on his partner's face. Napoleon leaned back casually in an overstuffed chair set against the far wall, his crisp white shirt a stark contrast to the fading ochre wallpaper behind him. "Where—" Illya began. A frog had taken up residence alongside the wood rasp, apparently. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Where is this?"
"We're outside Novosibirsk."
"Why are we still in Siberia?"
"Waverly thought we'd better let things die down a bit before heading home."
Die down a bit. . . Events of the recent past seemed murky, and evidently his expression said as much. "The authorities were not amused that we burned down their famous landmark," Napoleon explained. "I think they're still holding it against us that we gave them the slip at the hotel."
"Did we complete the mission?"
Napoleon leaned forward, elbows on knees. "Yes, I'm relieved to say. Our boys have been all over the site, and there's no sign of the crystals."
"Good." Illya sighed, coughed again, and took another sip of water. "What about Angelique?"
"Not a whisper. Egret's vanished, too."
When he looked up, Napoleon was staring at him thoughtfully. "We already talked about this, you know."
Illya frowned. "Did we? I. . .don't recall."
"Don't you remember sitting around the hospital with me and then coming here?"
Illya shook his head.
Napoleon examined his face intently. "Huh. That's interesting. No memory at all?"
"No," he lied. In fact, the murk was dissipating. An uncomfortable metal chair, the hospital corridor, doctors working on Napoleon, questions from the local police, a feeling like sawdust in his lungs. . . yes, he remembered the aftermath, at least some of it. It seemed far away, as if it had happened to someone else. Strangely unimportant. But the other, the other memories--
"You feel all right?"
He forced himself away from the other thoughts, the ones that chilled him, and took stock of himself physically. "My head aches. My hand hurts." He looked at his right hand and found it bandaged.
"You burned it," Napoleon said. "Dragging me out."
"Oh." He flexed his hand. The burning staircase. Of course.
He looked up again and found Napoleon frowning at him. "What time is it?" he asked, deliberately looking away, as if for a clock.
"Nearly eight. In the evening. You slept fifteen hours straight."
"I don't remember that."
"Well, you wouldn't, would you?" Napoleon chuckled, and moved towards the bed. For the first time Illya noticed his crutches.
He pulled himself up against the headboard and made a move to rise. "Forgive me, Napoleon. Your leg, how is it?"
"Not too bad." Napoleon waved him back down and sat on the end of the bed, grunting slightly. He lay the crutches against the bed and patted his thigh. "Hurts like hell, but went straight through without hitting anything important." He grinned at Illya. "Go ahead. Tell me how lucky I am."
Illya shook his head. "I'm sorry."
"You're sorry you had to carry me, you mean."
"Don't play the fool. You could've been killed."
"No," Napoleon said, casually reaching to touch him. "Not a chance of that. Not with you out there to rescue me."
Their eyes met for a moment, until Illya dropped his gaze. Try as he might to block them, the devastating memories of the fire were coming back in a rush. His breath quickened. If only he didn’t have to remember, if only Napoleon would stop saying--
In desperation he shifted his focus outward, turning to look around the room, and in shifting managed to move out from under Napoleon's hand. Wallpaper, he catalogued. Slanted ceiling. A finished attic, perhaps, well kept, despite its air of genteel shabbiness. A comfortable room, two beds, two heavy duvets on the two beds, four pillows, a small cabinet on the wall that no doubt hid an icon. "Not a hotel."
"No, it's a safe house, more precisely the home of Sascha and Mila Rymarenko." Napoleon paused, and his expression softened. "Illya, you—"
"—Who are they?"
"Two nice people who happen to be on the payroll of UNCLE. Illya, we need to—"
"—Rymarenko. They're Ukrainian?"
"No idea. You can ask them. They don't speak much English, that's all I know." Napoleon gave a heavy sigh and passed a hand over his face. He looked tired. "I'm wise to what you're doing, you know."
"And what's that?"
"You're deflecting the conversation. Wouldn't you rather talk about what happened?"
"The mission is over."
"Not the mission. About what happened to you a long time ago. What you remembered. That was your family, wasn't it?"
He'd been expecting it, but all the bracing in the world couldn't have prevented the wave of shame from crashing into him. He felt it happen, and then he was drowning, sinking under the weight of the truth the memories had revealed.
Napoleon was looking at him with, what—kindness? Sadness? Pity? He felt naked under that gaze, exposed and vulnerable. Surely Napoleon must see, must understand now what he truly was. He reached for his instinctive walls, the invisible, impenetrable barrier that he maintained between himself and the world.
But he couldn't summon the barrier any more, not with Napoleon, and he cursed him for it.
"Please, Napoleon. I'm very tired." Illya lay back and turned his head away. His hands clenched in the covers and his pulse kept pounding. The urge to flee was strong, but perhaps if he didn't look at Napoleon, the conversation would stop, this would all end.
No such luck. "Illya, can't you tell me about it? I know it must have been terrible for you, what happened to you—"
"It didn’t happen to me, Napoleon, don't you understand? I made it happen!"
"Illya." Napoleon's voice was unbearably gentle. "You didn't—"
"—You know nothing about it. Now. . .please. Please don't. I can't talk."
The silence filled the space between them like a noxious gas.
"Fine, no talking," Napoleon said, at last. An edge had crept into his voice. "How about a game of cards? Some witty repartee? Something to eat, then? I'm hungry, so you must be ravenous, right?"
"No thank you."
"You sure? If you fill your mouth you'll have an excuse not to talk."
"Napoleon, stop it."
The word was said sternly and he turned his face back to his partner. "Napoleon, I will not discuss it. Any of it. The mission is over, and we survived. Nothing else matters."
"Nothing else matters? You matter, Illya, you matter to me! I need you—"
"You managed to save the mission despite my interference."
"Despite your—are you crazy?"
The flight response intensified; his heart was beating so rapidly by now he thought he might pass out. "You're hungry." Words tumbled out in a rush as he pushed aside the bedclothes. "No sense in you starving, let me get you something to eat. You shouldn't be on that leg. I'll just go, I'll go downstairs and get you some food." He slid out of the bed, but Napoleon caught his arm.
"Don't do this, Illya. Stay. I don't need to eat. I need you."
"The one thing you don't need is me."
"No?" Napoleon's grip tightened. "Hey. We’ve been through the wringer together, tovarishch. And we survived—again! I think we should celebrate that fact."
"I'm leaving." He pulled away. The suitcase he'd left at the hotel was standing by the bed. He grabbed clothes at random from it and began to dress. He had to get away, get out of here, before the hold he had on himself evaporated.
Behind him he heard Napoleon struggling to rise. The crutches made a soft click, click on the wood floor. "Where? There's nowhere to go. Not even a decent restaurant. Listen, we can tell Mila to bring us something, and eat it in bed. Pure decadent extravagance. Come on. What d'you say?"
He faced Napoleon.
The joking façade crumbled. "Please, Illya. Please talk to me."
There was something about Napoleon's handsome face, an expression on it Illya had rarely, if ever seen before. Uncertainty. Uncertainty that went with the pleading sound of his voice. And there was hurt, too, great hurt. It pained him to see that, to hear it, in someone he cared for so desperately.
For once he let himself admit how much he cared, and didn't try to push the knowledge away. But acceptance didn't assuage his own pain; it only intensified his guilt. He had cared for others, too, and look what he'd brought them.
Still, he felt a rush of shame for treating Napoleon so. He nearly wavered then, nearly turned to him to gather him in an embrace. But the thought, cold as an icicle, stabbed through him: Imagine how much worse pain I am capable of inflicting.
There was only one remedy. "I'm going to leave UNCLE, Napoleon. I'll tell Waverly when we get back."
Napoleon was stunned. "Why? Why would you do that?"
"It will save him having to dismiss me."
"What on earth—You've done nothing wrong! Hell, you were a damn hero out there." Illya was close enough to see the thoughts course through the other man's face. Quick thoughts, desperate ones as Napoleon scrambled madly. "Look, Illya, you've been through a lot. You need some time off, time to sort things out. So do I. Why don't I get Waverly to give us a couple days, maybe a week, so—"
"Napoleon, it's for the best."
Yours. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, and don't be an ass." Napoleon grabbed at his arm, and one crutch fell heavily to the floor. "You saved my damn life, Illya. Now is not the time to act like you messed up in some way, unless you're saying my life wasn't worth saving."
"You know that's absurd."
"Do I?" Napoleon released him roughly, and limped back a step. "I'll tell you what's absurd, it's this tortured act of yours. I've had enough of it, moi droog, I've had a belly full of it. Damn it, Illya, out there on that hill I learned things about you that showed me how truly brave you are, especially with what you were reliving. Yeah, you fell apart. So what? Who wouldn't, under those circumstances? But no matter what was going on inside you, you held it together until we were safe. You fought through it, Illya, long enough to make a difference. You know what real bravery is? It's being afraid and doing the dangerous thing anyway. I thought that's what you were, someone to admire, a brave man who wouldn't give up. Was I wrong?"
"That's nonsense and you know it."
"Save your admiration, Napoleon. You saw bravery out there. I saw. . .I saw someone who killed his own family. That's who I am, who I really am. Given enough time, I'll destroy you, too. Maybe not tomorrow, but some time, some mission. I'll fail you like I failed them—"
"—Bullshit. You don't really believe that."
He said nothing, leaving silence for his answer.
Napoleon's face darkened. "Know what? I don't admire you. I don’t even like you. Not when you wallow in self-pity like this."
"Whatever you say." He turned towards the door, barely able to see before him.
"Great," Napoleon barked. "This is the second time you've tried to walk out on me. So what's next—you going to have me up against the wall again? Screw my brains out to prove to me how dangerous you are? Frankly, I'd rather we used the bed, because my leg is killing me."
Illya shuddered to a stop, his hand on the doorknob.
"Well, that is your pattern, isn't it?" Napoleon went on brutally. "First you threaten to walk out, like Sarah Bernhardt giving an exit speech, and then you grab me and show me your 'baser urges.' Not exactly make-up sex; what is it, guilt sex? No, exorcism sex, right? Well, fine. You need an exorcism, I'll be your priest. You want me to excuse your shameful acts? Want to show me how terrible you really are inside? Dump your sins on me, Illya. Go ahead—Te absolvo! Because if that's what it takes to help you get through this, forgiveness for your real sins and your imaginary ones, I'm willing. I don't care if you drown kittens or killed the Romanovs, I forgive you. I forgive you. I will always forgive you!"
"Whatever delusions you have of your power over me, Napoleon, I assure you you're mistaken."
"Really. And I suppose I'm mistaken that you're running away."
"I know what I'm capable of. You're better off without me. I'm quite clear about this and I have no regrets."
"You should. You should have plenty of regrets if you walk out of here. Damn it—damn you! Don't you understand what I'm saying? Haven't the last few months told you anything? You don't think I need you? Jesus, Illya, I—"
Napoleon stopped. A look came over his face, one that wiped away the anger and frustration and replaced it with a calm, almost serene expression. "That's it, Illya. I told you once I cared about you, but you know what? That was a cop-out. I love you. I should have told you then, but I didn't want to scare you. Well, you're scaring me now, so damn the consequences. I love you, I love you, and I won't let you walk out of here, because you know you feel the same way about me."
"Don’t put words in my mouth, Napoleon." He threw the door open.
"So I was wrong, after all," Napoleon's voice was steel. "You are a coward."
He flinched, but shut the door behind him without looking back.
The gunmetal grey wall felt cool as ice against Illya's back as he loitered in the outer hallway outside Waverly's office, not even bothering to pace. Even though his appointment wasn't for another ten minutes, it felt better to come early and wait here. Clearly nothing was going to be done about the mountain of paperwork that had piled up in his absence; he couldn't seem to focus his mind on it, and the walls in his office had seemed oppressively close. It was hard to make himself care about mundane matters.
The door in front of him whispered open and he straightened his posture. Napoleon stood framed in the doorway for a second before stepping forward, limping slightly and leaning on a silver-handled ebony cane. Despite himself, Illya smiled. Napoleon hadn't wasted any time ditching the crutches for the extravagant accessory; even wounded, he insisted on cutting a dashing figure.
The small smile faded. Soon enough Napoleon's charming eccentricities would no longer be a part of his life. It wrenched him to think that, but he told himself he was doing what was best for both of them.
Napoleon's eyes caught his, and flared with warmth. "I haven't seen you for two days."
Illya deflected the implied question. "How are you feeling? Your leg, I mean."
Napoleon shrugged and waved the cane. "Well enough. I'm on leave."
"Take advantage of it. Don't come back before you're mended."
"I'll try." Napoleon's voice was light, but his face belied it. He gave a little gesture back towards the office. "He's ready for you."
Illya answered with a small nod and started to pass.
He forced a smile. "It will be all right, Napoleon."
"Of course it will." Napoleon put a hand on his shoulder. "I only wish you. . ." He stopped himself. "Come see me after you talk to him, all right?"
The door slid open, saving him from answering. Illya stepped through and heard the soft whoosh behind him.
"Come in, Mr. Kuryakin."
He crossed the thick grey carpet. Alexander Waverly sat behind his desk, three-quarters turned away from the door. The old man continued to scribble something onto a paper, and Illya waited patiently, taking care that his hands not twitch. This was hardly the time to betray nervous mannerisms.
Besides, he wasn't nervous, not really. He had a sense of inevitability about this meeting, that was all. No point in having nerves.
At last Waverly closed his fountain pen and turned to look at him. "Mr. Kuryakin."
"Please sit down."
So it was to be a long debriefing, rather than a short sharp execution. He would have preferred the latter, but he was trained for obedience, so he pulled out a chair and sat.
"Let me see now," Waverly said, opening a file folder. "I have your notes here on the recent, ah, mission in Izledovangorod. I see that both Dr. Holodny and Gustave Teckler met a rather nasty end, which Mr. Solo corroborates. A shame we didn't recover their notes. You'll be happy to know that our people have been over the area with a fine tooth comb, as it were, and thanks to Mr. Solo's quick thinking, we have not seen any sign that the THRUSH crystals survived the fire. At least we may be glad of that."
Waverly got up and went to open his humidor. He fiddled with the tobacco, and with the pipe, but then shut the lid without actually filling it. Illya watched him carefully, memorizing Waverly's characteristic actions, imprinting the image in his mind. He wanted to remember Waverly just this way: the absent-minded professor with the hidden ruthlessness of a samurai.
The UNCLE chief walked to the window and contemplated the view. "You may wonder why I wanted to see you privately, Mr. Kuryakin, rather than in tandem with Mr. Solo."
Waverly turned to look at him. "Indeed?"
"It's only natural you should wish to speak to me separately after the recent events in Siberia. Mr. Solo's performance in the field was exemplary. Mine was. . .well, the report explained what happened." He cleared his throat; the taste of the burning building still ghosted on his tongue. "Sir, I've written a letter of—"
"In a moment. Now, you state in your report, Mr. Kuryakin, that your own behavior during this affair was somewhat under par."
That prompted a short, bitter laugh. "Under par? A disaster."
"Please explain your reasoning, then. Your notes are rather sketchy on the subject."
"Sir, I—" He swallowed. "Regretfully I cannot excuse my actions."
"I don't ask you to excuse them, merely to tell me what happened."
"Very well. I let a THRUSH agent escape. I should have insisted on accompanying Mr. Solo to the lab. If I had done so, I might have recovered Holodny's notes, and prevented all of the deaths and Napo--Mr. Solo's injury. I made no attempt to verify that the substance had been destroyed completely. I forgot the mission, and was concerned only with rescuing my partner. I couldn't stop the destruction of a building that was a Soviet national treasure. I behaved in a thoroughly unprofessional manner, and was unable, through my weakness, to provide any assistance to our people when they arrived—is that enough for you, sir?"
Waverly ignored the impertinence. "You suffered smoke inhalation, Mr. Kuryakin. Both you and Mr. Solo were removed to hospital. Surely you cannot expect—"
"—No sir! More than that. I panicked, I was. . .incoherent. Incapable. Out of control. Useless." His voice had risen unexpectedly, and he made himself stop talking. Waverly's eyes were piercing him, and he looked down to find his hands knotted on the tabletop.
Damn Waverly. Over the past 48 hours, he'd managed to cloak himself in the guise of his former self, cool, efficient. Controlled. Waverly was breaking open his facade, dredging everything up again, not just the facts, which he'd been prepared for, but the feelings, too, from the claustrophobic panic inside the burning building to his complete breakdown in front of Napoleon.
All the details were sharp now, so sharp they seemed outlined in white light. The hillside. The hospital. Sitting in a metal chair, forgotten, while people in white coats bustled Napoleon away. Impatient medical personnel speaking to him. His own automatic answers. The one observant nurse coming to him with an oxygen mask, forcing him to use it. And through it all, never ceasing, the barrage of memories from so long ago, devastating, revealing memories of his shame.
"Mr. Kuryakin." Illya pulled out of his reverie and looked up into his chief's wrinkled face. "Mr. Solo tells a different version of events."
Illya felt the blood rise to his face. "He doesn't understand."
"You underestimate him, which surprises me." Waverly harrumphed and cleared his throat. "So you are thinking of resigning. I assume it's not just because of this recent business. Because even if mistakes were made, which is debatable, the mission was a success. You've made mistakes before, Mr. Kuryakin. Everyone has. But on balance you've always landed on your feet, wouldn't you say?" He didn't wait for an answer. "It's a rather thin excuse, this affair in Siberia. So what is the reason, truthfully?"
"I have. . .personal reasons."
"Do you, indeed. And what might those be? You're healthy, you have no dependents that require your attention. So what is it? Tell me."
"I don't believe my partner can trust me any more."
"I think you know that is not true."
He felt the heat of another flush. "I don't deserve his trust. I can't. . .I can't trust myself."
"I see. How long have you worked for us, Mr. Kuryakin?"
The change of subject put him on guard. Waverly was too full of subtleties for such a swift change to be accidental. "Eight years, sir, counting my training."
"And very good training it was, too. Top of your class." He flipped a page and Illya realized that the file was his own, his personal record. "You showed promise from the beginning of our association, young man," Waverly continued, "Which is remarkable considering the unfortunate start you had in life." Illya's breath hitched, but Waverly either did not notice or did not care. "In 1956 you were barely twenty years old, and you already had one advanced degree. As I said, remarkable. Your people gave you a good education. Whatever the disagreements between the East and West, the Soviets do deserve our gratitude for that. And yours, I should imagine."
"Yes, yes, of course I am Cambridge."
"Yes, quite." Waverly said dismissively, and flipped back another page. "Before Paris there was Moscow, and other academic honors. A brief stint in the military. And even earlier, schooling in Kiev. But Cherkasy is where you are from, is it not?" It was not meant as a question and Illya did not reply. "Yes. You were born there. And yet you came to Kiev at a very young age, to live with your father's relatives." His eyes swept back to the page. "After your family was killed, in November of 1943."
He looked up, startled. "How do you—"
Waverly peered at him over the top of the folder. "You're not the only one who knows people in the KGB, Mr. Kuryakin."
The unease had turned into full-on distress. Napoleon had told him. Napoleon told Waverly what I did. "Sir, I—"
Waverly continued smoothly, as if he hadn't spoken. "The Ukraine has always been under siege, from ancient times until our own, unfortunately. Many times." The old man moved back around to his desk, file still in hand, and put down his pipe. "Everyone wanted it—Russia plundered it cruelly and annexed it for her own devices. A people caught in the cross-fire, I would say, isn't that so?"
Illya nodded mutely.
"And in more recent times, as well. In the autumn of 1943, for example. The Nazis were in retreat, badly beaten by the Soviets. They'd come expecting to roll over a people they considered inferior to the Aryan race. Now they were leaving with their tails between their legs. You are aware of that."
"Every Soviet child learns this." What, what was Waverly saying?
"I should imagine so. And they would do well never to forget it." Waverly moved slowly to the large circular table and picked up a green folder. He opened it, just as slowly, and his eyes moved over the page. "The German Army was ordered to leave complete destruction in its wake. Heinrich Himmler himself told the SS. . . here, let me read this to you—quote, 'leave behind in the Ukraine not a single person, no cattle, not a bushel of grain, not a railroad track. . .' Appalling. Over two million houses and buildings burned and destroyed. In some villages the German army ordered all the people into the church and set fire to it. Sometimes they did that in town halls, or schools. The homes of the people in the path of the German Army were to be burned down, the people driven out or murdered on the spot, the relatives of dissenters held as hostages. Terrible. Terrible times, terrible tragedy."
His hands had gone numb. He felt disembodied, as if he no longer had substance. Yet his mind was working overtime, hearing with crystal clarity each word Waverly uttered. Every Soviet child learns this. . .but had he, really? Where had he stored that knowledge, why did it seem so shockingly new?
Waverly turned a page, regarded it for a moment, and then, surprisingly, pulled out the chair next to Illya's and sat down, putting aside the file. "On the third of November, 1943, the Germans bombed the town of Cherkasy. They destroyed the railway station, the town hall, and then continued southwards, burning farms. It was a horrible day for the people of Cherkasy. Hundreds of people died that November 3rd."
A vise was squeezing his lungs. "My birthday," he whispered.
"I know," Waverly said, very quietly. "A terrible tragedy, to lose one's family in that way, when one is so very young."
The world, his world and his understanding of it, was shedding its old, disfigured skin, leaving a clean new reality in its place. The Nazis destroyed the town. . .She gave me a candle in a special cake. . .they ordered complete destruction. . . she told me to blow it out and save it, because candles were not to be wasted. . . they burned the farms. . . I killed. . . they killed. . .
He became aware that Waverly was speaking to him in a low, calm voice, one Illya had never heard him use before. "I wondered at the randomness of war, when a shell passed me by and killed my friends. I wondered why it had spared me and taken the others. I have seen many men and women die in battle, Mr. Kuryakin. I have lost partners; I have lost many young people like yourself and Mr. Solo, and each time, each time, I grieve.
"But at least as adults we have experience with the human condition and the senselessness of violent death. For a child to lose everything in one fell swoop. . . I imagine it would be devastating. Such an experience would stay with one for life, I should think." Waverly's eyes seemed huge under his shaggy brows. "How does a child's mind encompass such a loss? Why does he live, he wonders, and not his mother, not his brother? And if, perhaps, he was annoyed with his brother for some childhood wrong, or angry at his mother because she wanted him to do a chore, who knows what might transpire, and what might remain in the child's heart and mind long afterwards? It might seem, after a time, as if he were somehow complicit in their deaths. Did he cause them to die? Did his life come at the cost of theirs?"
Waverly reached over and put a hand over Illya's wrist. It was the first time, ever, he remembered such contact with his superior.
"Illya," Waverly said, and the use of his given name was shocking, threatening his tenuous grasp on composure. "This I know: there is evil in the world, evil, and random chance, and terrible accidents, and all of these things kill. But guilt may be the greatest destroyer of all, because it eats at us, even the best of us, killing slowly from within, from the heart outward."
"Is there. . ." Illya began, and then faltered. Something was stirring inside him, trying to break free. "How do. . ."
"Is there a cure for it, were you going to say?" Waverly patted his arm and withdrew his hand. "Only the truth, young man. And the knowledge of one's own importance in the world. One's importance to others. We need you. Mr. Solo, most of all, needs you." At Illya's sudden glance, Waverly smiled. "Come now. You must know that."
For a moment Illya thought wildly, Waverly knows. But it didn't matter if he did or didn't. He was too overwhelmed by the magnitude of Waverly's gift to care. Because there was more than just the truth here, there was a key to unlock not only his past, but his future.
The old man cleared his throat and went in search of his pipe. "I have a mission coming up in a week or so that I would like you to undertake. You and Mr. Solo, of course. I hope I may count on you." Waverly paused for a beat, and went on without an answer. "In the meantime, Mr. Solo is on medical leave. Do be a good fellow and keep an eye on him, won't you? See he doesn't get in trouble."
"I. . .yes, sir," Illya mumbled, his mind still whirling.
"Very well. That is all."
He stumbled to his feet. "My letter sir, I—"
"I'm afraid I've misplaced it. Write another. If you still wish me to read it."
"I. . ." He stood for a moment, awkwardly caught between speech and flight. "Sir, I. . ."
But the old man was back at his desk, and merely grunted in response.
He stumbled from the room and down the corridor, mind racing. People passed him, but he scarcely noticed. It was not until the doors of his own office closed behind him that his legs gave way. The last vestiges of control dissolved, washed away by the great relief coursing through his body. Out of the ashes of Illya's heart, something was flickering to life.
The setting sun spilled over the terrace, through the French doors, and across the floor of the apartment, burnishing the wood with molten gold. Napoleon paused in the act of closing the doors, struck by the beauty of the light, and leaned heavily against the door frame. Late October was always beautiful in New York, and never more so than at sunset, when the entire city was lit with an almost unearthly light. Autumn, with its palette of glorious, dying leaves, always made him ache in a way that could not be articulated.
The glass in his hand was nearly empty. He tilted it to drain the last drops, feeling the cold liquid burn a trail down his throat. His eyes fell on the panoramic vista twenty floors below him, but for once he wasn't reveling in the view. In truth, he wasn't seeing any of it, not the turrets of the far skyline, or the hundreds of sparkling windows, nor even the multi-hued trees of Central Park. His focus was entirely internal; in his mind's eye was another gold-tinged evening, a shabby safe-house, a thin mattress flung on the floor. And Illya, bronzed by the light, looking back at him through heavy-lidded eyes.
The ache gathered, coiling like a snake around his heart.
I've lost him.
He'd known it in the corridor outside Waverly's office when he'd seen the look of finality on Illya's face, his closed face. Illya had made his choice, and there would be no backing away from it. He could not be argued out of a decision, nor pleaded to, Napoleon knew from brutal experience. Once he'd made up his mind, no one was as stubborn as his partner--
He caught himself. Not his partner. At least not for much longer.
Cool wind whipped through his shirt and Napoleon stepped back inside. He brought the glass doors together roughly, with a loud bang, but even in the warmth of the room he shivered. He exhaled heavily, his breath leaving a trail of moist vapor on the glass, then rested his forehead against it and squeezed his eyes shut.
Maybe he'd been deluding himself all along about Illya's attachment to him; perhaps he'd created it out of whole cloth from his own wishes. After all, Napoleon thought with bitterness, hadn't he declared himself, back in Siberia? Apparently that hadn't mattered, not from the way Illya walked out without a look back, not even coming by after seeing Waverly. That was the bitterest pill of all; he hadn't even come to say goodbye.
So, Napoleon thought, I'm supposed to do nothing, just go on. Alone.
Which would be worse, he wondered, losing Illya as his partner in the field, or as a more intimate partner in his bed? It was hard to separate the two. Their partnership wasn't just about the work—it was about how they existed almost as one person, acting as one, both breathing the same air and thinking as if with one brain. There were no self-imposed controls for Illya when they stood, hip to hip, fighting their way out of impossible situations. He didn't distinguish Napoleon from himself when making lightning-fast decisions, or improvising a plan, or cold-bloodedly taking out the opposition. He just existed, as Napoleon did, for and with his partner. They were closer even than lovers, at times like those.
Closer than lovers.
Meaningless thoughts. He would miss Illya most when he was alone in his apartment, as he was now, with nothing left save lingering images and sensations, memories of Illya against him, his face transported by passion, beyond speech, yielding to the sweet torture between them. Either way, in either regard, losing him was inconceivable.
Napoleon straightened his spine. It was inconceivable, all right, and unacceptable. Illya wanted to go? Well, he wouldn't let him go easily. There was something to be done, there must be, something to say, something he hadn't thought of yet. Illya mustn't leave like this, damn it, he wasn't allowed to go this way. The glass in his hand smelled of vodka, and something triggered inside him, sharp emotion welling up, spilling over. He turned away from the terrace and its light, its reminder of things that were dying, and hurled the glass in the general direction of his fireplace, to smash it there into a thousand pieces, just as he himself was shattering--
--except there was no crash, no explosion of glass.
It took a moment to register. Slowly Napoleon lifted his head.
Illya stood by the fireplace, the glass in his hand, considering it as if it were a priceless objet d'art. He glanced up, an almost apologetic look on his face. "I have excellent reflexes."
Napoleon released his breath. "So I see."
"Wasteful." Illya turned the glass in his hand, holding it up to the light. "If you're going to break glasses, don't start with the crystal."
Slowly, Napoleon took air back into his constricted chest. "Thanks for the tip."
He watched as Illya sniffed the glass before placing it carefully on the mantel. "Vodka martini. Drinking alone? I've heard that's a symptom of the blues. It's an American condition." A small smile played around his lips. "Or perhaps that's just a cultural stereotype."
Napoleon didn't smile back. The banter was easy, but meaningless, and they both knew it.
Illya crossed to the bar, examining the bottles. "It's better to drink with a friend."
"So I'm told."
There was a pause, one that stretched past the bounds of comfort. Illya remained by the bar, but made no move to pour himself a drink. His eyes hovered just over Napoleon's shoulder, as if watching the sunlight fade on the terrace.
Napoleon couldn't bear the silence. "You always were a good cat burglar."
Illya shrugged. "It seemed only fair. As I recall you did the same to me."
"That explains the deja vu I'm experiencing."
"You made it easy. You left the locks off. Almost as if you were expecting me."
Was there a question in Illya's remark? "I wasn't," Napoleon said, more harshly than he intended. It was no more than the truth, after all.
"I see." Nervous. Illya sounded nervous.
The ache inside Napoleon's chest shifted and released infinitesimally. "But I hoped."
Something glittered in Illya's eyes, just the strange sunlight, perhaps, but for the moment they lit up as if a fire had been stoked within him. The coiled pain around Napoleon's heart yielded a bit more.
Yet Illya's next words chilled him. "I'm so sorry."
So. There it was. This was the goodbye, the coup de grace he'd been expecting.
"I don't know where to begin, I—"
"Don't begin, Illya. Just. . .don't. Not if this is goodbye. Because I'm not giving you up without a fight." Napoleon squared himself, ready to do battle. "I don't want to hear anything about me not being able to trust you, and I don't want any of that crap about how you'll get me killed, because you never will, you'll always be there for me, I know it, and so do you. Illya, you saved me, and—"
"You're wrong." Illya's eyes flickered at him. "You're very wrong."
"Damn you, I'm not—"
"—Please. Listen." Illya finally relinquished his white-knuckled grip on the bar and moved towards the terrace doors. "Napoleon. Do you remember that night in my apartment?"
It was painfully clear which night he meant. "Yes, of course."
"When you said those things to me, when you forced me to listen, I. . ." Illya shook his head. "You can't imagine what that was like for me. Rather like being flayed alive. You meant well, I know, but everything began to unravel and I couldn't seem to make it stop. Ideas, memories. . .it was overwhelming. I panicked. I think I would have preferred to die, rather than feel—"
"—I knew you were trying to—"
"—Napoleon, for once let me finish talking, will you?"
Napoleon raised his eyebrows at the familiar exasperation in Illya's voice. Funny how calming it was to him. He held his tongue.
Illya nodded. "Thank you. I told you it was a Pandora's Box, remember? Because of you I couldn't force the lid shut again. I cursed you for doing that to me. You can be an unremitting bastard, Napoleon, you know that? Once you see weakness you keep pushing at it, and pushing. You pushed me hard, until you made me say what you wanted to hear. How much I wanted—" He swallowed. "How much I wanted you." Illya paused, and took in a deep breath. "You know what I hated the most? The fact that it was true."
Napoleon wanted to speak, to move, but he didn't dare. The room was completely still, as if the outside world did not exist. Illya shifted his position, turned away to stare at the terrace. "I did want you. With you, Napoleon, I almost forgot what could happen. I was happy, can you imagine that? Me, happy. There's a concept for you." He laughed shortly, but it was a dry, mirthless sound. "When I almost lost you again in Siberia. . ." His shoulders hunched and his hands clenched and unclenched at his side. "It only proved I'd been right the first time. There was no happiness to be had."
Napoleon waited as Illya fought to still his hands and make his tense shoulders relax. "The other, the other memory. . .I didn't expect that. But afterwards, I thought it was one more reason why I needed to leave you, to get away from you, before you consumed my life completely or I destroyed yours. I told Waverly you didn't understand what happened to me." He shook his head, then closed his eyes briefly. Napoleon waited. "But I find that I am the one who didn't understand. A great many things, as it turns out."
"You talk too much, Napoleon. You talk too much, and you think you're right all the time, and you don't understand that things can't always go your way." Illya shook his head and strands of gold fell into his eyes. "I said you were wrong, before, and it's true. You're very wrong. I didn't save you, Napoleon. You saved me."
The permanent crease between Illya's eyes was nearly smoothed out, his eyes clear and untroubled, as finally, finally, he looked at Napoleon and didn't shift away. "You saved me, Napoleon. You did that. You saved me from the cold-hearted, terrible man who wore my clothes and carried my gun, even though he didn't deserve being saved. You saved me from him, and you made him understand, after a fashion, that maybe he deserved saving after all."
"He did deserve it. You do deserve it. You do, Illya." Napoleon found his fingers pushing Illya's hair from his face, and he couldn't seem to stop. "Sorry, my turn. Honestly, tovarishch, I didn't think you knew that many words to string together." His hands came to rest on Illya's shoulders. "You forget I know the secret, my friend. Your heart's not as cold as you pretend it is. I couldn't love you if it were."
Illya smiled back at him, but there was sadness in his face as well. "That's what you believe in, isn't it, Napoleon? That's even why you do your job. You believe in it. In the idea of love."
"I have to," Napoleon said simply, "Or I couldn't go on. And you, Illya, what do you believe in?"
The smile faltered. "I can't even say the word without choking over it. How can you care about someone who can't even say the word?"
"Words don't matter."
"Don't they?" Illya shrugged. "Perhaps not. But I can't—that is, I want you to understand anyway, how I. . .that I. . ."
"It doesn't matter," Napoleon said, rescuing him. "I know, Illya. I always knew, even if you didn't."
One blond eyebrow raised. "You know everything, do you?"
"Hmm. No wonder everyone wants to shoot you. I'd better keep an eye on you, or someone might succeed. You're a smug bastard."
"Quit impugning my sainted mother's virtue." The coin dropped. "Does this. . . I mean, are you? Staying?"
Illya's eyes were unreadable, and Napoleon's heart lurched again, caught between hope and dread at what message they held. "It would seem that I am a coward, after all," Illya said, after a moment. "I can't do this alone."
"No," Illya said softly. "My life."
Napoleon pulled him close, clung to him so tightly he heard Illya exhale under the pressure, but he couldn't have pulled back if he'd tried. "My God. My God, Illya. You're not leaving."
A dry whisper tickled his ear. "Didn't I just say that? You should pay closer attention."
"Know what? You are terrible." He relaxed his grip slightly. "What made you change your mind? What the hell did Waverly say to you?"
"Nothing I didn't know already." Napoleon could hear the self-mockery in Illya's voice. "But I finally understood it. I suppose I'm a dreadfully slow student."
"No. You're just stubborn."
"Mm, yes, that is true. Oh, and he gave me orders to watch you."
"Orders?" But that was as far as he got, because Illya was pulling back, yanking his head toward him, and their mouths were pressing together, Illya's hands on his face, holding Napoleon while he overwhelmed his senses.
"Was that Waverly's order, too?" Napoleon murmured breathlessly, after a while.
"Hardly. Perhaps I have a problem with authority, as well."
"No perhaps about it, my little Bolshevik."
Illya groaned. "Spare me another absurd nickname."
"It suits you. You make so much trouble all the time."
"Only for emperors."
Napoleon stifled his laugh in Illya's hair. "Would you prefer 'Illyusha,' then?"
Illya paused before answering. "No. That's of the past, Napoleon. Some things, I think, are best remembered, but left behind." His serious tone lifted. "You're very creative. I'm sure, to my horror, you'll come up with something."
"It's a promise," Napoleon said, enjoying how Illya grimaced. "You know, I was going to tie you up and keep you in my apartment, if you insisted on leaving."
"That's the best you could think of? Really, Napoleon. What would you do without me thinking for the both of us?"
"Who's the smug bastard now?"
Illya didn't answer. Instead he pulled back, looking thoughtful. "What do you suppose the reward should be for saving a life? Tell me. Tell me what you want and it's yours."
"Cooperative, aren't you?"
"Just this once. To make up for all the trouble."
"You think one favor will erase it all?"
"You haven't seen the favor."
Napoleon shuddered with desire. "It'd better be good."
Illya smiled at him in a way that raised goose bumps of pleasure on Napoleon's body. "Come to bed and you'll find out."
Lying back on the bed, naked, Napoleon watched his partner—and yes, yes, you're still my partner, still mine -- as he slowly, almost teasingly, disrobed before him. The last article of clothing dropped to the floor and Illya climbed languorously onto the crisp cotton sheets beside him. "What's your fancy, Napoleon?" he asked in a voice redolent of dark back rooms, where all manner of appetites might be satisfied.
Napoleon's mouth went dry. Speech for the moment was impossible, with that devastating low purr, that seductive scrutiny. He lifted his right hand and stroked his thumb gently over Illya's bottom lip, which parted to suckle his finger inside. The wet heat made Napoleon throb with anticipation. "I love your mouth," he breathed.
Illya relinquished his finger and smiled knowingly at him. Dear God, when had Illya turned into such a demon? His eyes, his voice, his smile, all promised debauchery of the sort Napoleon could scarcely imagine. And Napoleon had an active imagination.
But Illya's favor, when it came, was not one of wild abandon, nor was it delivered with his usual insatiable voracity. For once he was not burning in his own fire, fighting himself for control and then hurtling headlong towards completion. In place of the frenzied desperation was slowly-escalating passion, as Illya meticulously devastated Napoleon's body and mind with the skill he'd always possessed, and a patience he'd never before demonstrated.
There was warmth and affection, too, alongside the passion, complementing the long, heated strokes of his tongue against Napoleon's flesh; there was gentle humor in his discovery of Napoleon's ticklish spots, places neither of them had known, given the blistering heat and speed of their earlier liaisons.
There was a worried sigh, too, when Illya encountered the bandage on Napoleon's leg, the reminder of Egret's bullet. The strong hands went still for a moment, before stroking lightly along Napoleon's inner thigh. Illya leaned in and kissed the bandage, softly, sweetly, as if his touch could heal. "Does it hurt?"
"Not so much. Nothing hurts very much, Illya, not any more."
"Good," Illya whispered into his thigh. "No pain, ever. Not again."
"For either of us," Napoleon murmured, sharing the fantasy, but knowing full well physical pain was inevitable, given the lives they led. He gasped and arched as Illya's lips coursed upwards to nuzzle at his groin. "Jesus!"
Without the frantic urgency, there was nothing but tenderness from Illya's hands and mouth. And when his lips finally fastened on Napoleon's eager erection, he drew out the exquisite torture, lovingly taking his time bringing Napoleon to the edge over and over again, until Solo could barely think of his own name. And when, finally, Illya relented and plunged his mouth down to draw Napoleon deeper, he swallowed around Napoleon's cock and Napoleon grunted his name and came in hot fountains down his throat.
He lay there, panting, as Illya crawled up next to him and lay there, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "That was. . .that was. . .some favor."
The tip of Illya's tongue came out to lick the corners of his mouth and the grin turned dangerous. "Who says I'm done with it?"
Napoleon tried to get a grip. He looked down and found Illya stroking his own erection, a sight so riveting he felt his deflated cock stir. "What about you? What do you want?"
"I can think of some things," Illya said.
"Really." Napoleon swallowed and yes, his cock was definitely showing interest. Amazing, so soon after he'd come so strongly.
Illya's eyed him appraisingly. "What's your pleasure now, Napoleon?"
"You, you're my pleasure." But he knew what he wanted, and though it was rare for him to want it, right now he desperately needed to capture Illya with his body. Within his body. He half-closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillows, raising one leg in invitation. Illya watched him, his eyes glittering with heat. Napoleon felt suddenly, absurdly shy, so rare an occurrence that for a moment he couldn't speak. Love. It really is love. "Would you," he said, his voice raspy with need, "I mean, I'd like you to. . ."
Illya laughed softly and leaned closer, his breath sending chills rattling up and down Napoleon's spine. "Napoleon. You can say 'love' in twenty-two languages, but you can't say 'fuck me?'"
Napoleon laughed back, abashed at his own delicacy, and then pulled Illya to him, sealing their mouths together. In a while he pulled back and sighed raggedly against Illya's mouth. "Imejte pol so mnoy."
Illya snorted. "You just said 'have a floor with me.'"
"All right then, have a floor with me."
"No, Napoleon. 'Zajmites' lyubov'yu so mnoy.'"
"'Lyubov. . .'"
"'Make love to me.'"
Napoleon threaded his fingers through the silky blond strands and drew Illya closer. "Make love to me, then. Make love to me, Illya."
"Ah," Illya said, his voice carefully neutral, but his eyes shining,. Napoleon smiled inwardly. If we were playing poker right now, tovarishch, I'd win. I know all your tells.
Hands were busy over him, now, gentle hands that seemed everywhere at once. And then they were focused, pushing inside him, cool and slick with some sort of substance that Illya had evidently materialized out of thin air. Endlessly resourceful, that Illya, Napoleon thought, arching into the clever fingers.
The preparations in themselves were incredibly arousing, but then Illya was lifting his legs, careful of his injury, stroking him as he pressed himself inside unhurriedly, and the sweet pleasure/pain was filling Napoleon, causing him to thrum with electricity. All the time in the world, that's what it felt like, as if Illya were in no rush for anything but to stoke the flames of pleasure for his partner with measured, devastating strokes. He found himself pushing back against each thrust, opening himself, reveling in the sensation.
Illya leaned forward slightly, changing his angle, and the gentle waves of pleasure that had rolled through Napoleon became engulfing torrents. He let himself loose with abandon, not caring if he moaned or yelled or called out incomprehensible gibberish. Please, he begged the Fates, or God, or any of a number of lesser deities, please let us stay like this forever, on the knife's edge of passion, partners in this, partners in everything.
Some prayers are answered, and some are not, and his climax couldn't be forestalled forever, no matter how much he wished it. Illya's hand closed around his cock, and that was it—claimed both inside and out, he bucked sharply and came again, all over Illya's hand and his own stomach. His bones seemingly had turned to jelly; in a state of satiated bliss he noted the change in Illya's rhythm as he, too, neared climax. Patience had its limits, evidently. Illya thrust into him several more times, the strokes shortening and becoming erratic. Above Napoleon Illya's breath roughened, and then he flexed and shuddered to a vibrating tautness. His face contorting, his mouth falling open, he thrust again and spent himself into his partner's welcoming body.
After a time, in a dim state of awareness, Napoleon felt his legs being lowered, felt Illya separate from him. He could do no more than lie there in a happy stupor as Illya crawled up next to him, drawing up the sheet to cover them both. An arm slid over him, pulling him closer, as the warm length of his partner stretched out against him. Moist lips delivered a gentle kiss to his shoulder. "Now," Illya whispered. "Now the favor's done, and I shall go back to being contrary."
"Good. That's the Illya I know and love." Napoleon turned to look at Illya's face, so close as to be slightly out of focus. "Did I mention I love you?"
"Several times. I assume it's for my mind." Illya burrowed into his neck and sighed deeply. "Now shut up and let me have the last word."
In his dream, Illya is flying over a white landscape. Below him, the surface is smooth, unbroken, unwrinkled, save for the gently rising hills underneath the covering of white. He soars gently, wondering at the whiteness, so reminiscent of snow, his skin warming with the first rays of morning sun, and for some reason his eyes tear. But his destination is near; he knows where he is going.
Illya sees himself sleeping. He is lying on a white, cool surface that smells of soap and ironing and sex, while next to him the gentle rise of a warm body breathes rhythmically in deepest sleep. There is comfort in the sound, for it reminds him that he is not alone. Illya smiles. He remembers a family—a father who died bravely in war, a golden-haired mother who doted on him, a sister he teased, a baby brother he made laugh. He loved them, and they loved him. Though they are gone now, they are remembered, and he knows they would be happy for him, for once again he has a place in the world, a place where he is cherished and needed. Loved.
In his dream, his heart is at last unfettered. "I love you," he whispers to the sleeper beside him.
The form next to him sighs and turns, mumbling softly in sleep. Eyes still closed, Dream-Illya reaches out and runs his fingers through short, thick hair, down a stubbled cheek, across sensual lips that curve into a smile at his touch. His fingertips feel electrified. The sleeper wakes slightly and snakes an arm about him. Illya is drawn into the curve of the other body, close enough to feel warm breath softly ruffling the too-long hair behind his ears. Perhaps he should cut it; it would be nice to feel this breath on the skin of his neck.
Dream-Illya sighs in contentment, and reaches over to embrace the sleeper. He turns his face into the warm neck, smells the scent of the one he loves, who loves him, and at last opens his eyes.
It is not a dream.
Sincere thanks are due to Bluster, Kellie and Erin, a trio of dream betas who were endlessly supportive and creative in solving the problems I threw at them. Ya lyublyu Vas ot osnovaniya moyego serdca, ladies!
The Russian phrases in this story were written using the online program http://translation.paralink.com/. Any mistakes, therefore, are due to the mechanical translator. It is a great resource.
The city of Izledovangorod is fictitious, but it is based on the actual city of Akademgorod, which was built on the outskirts of Novosibirsk in 1958 to be a scientific mecca, specifically to draw the greatest scientific minds in Russia to Siberia. The founders and scientists mentioned, other than Nikola Holodny, are quite real.
Waverly's information about the Nazis is based on true incidents, and Cherkasy is a real place. The Ukraine was long thought of as the breadbasket of Russia, and Russia itself had annexed it through violent occupation. What the Soviets missed in 1941 the Germans destroyed in 1943-44. According to Soviet Ukraine, the retreating Germans "razed and burned over 28,000 villages and 714 cities and towns, leaving millions of people without shelter."
Himmler on September 7, 1943 ordered SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Prutzmann to "leave behind in Ukraine not a single person, no cattle, not a ton of grain, not a railroad track. The enemy must find a country totally burned and destroyed." The German Army was ordered to leave total destruction in its wake so 18,414 miles of railroads were ripped up, mines were flooded, industries that the Soviets missed when they had occupied the Ukraine were dynamited, wells were poisoned, and over two million houses and buildings were burned and destroyed.
Erich Koch ordered during the 1943 retreat that "the homes of recalcitrant natives... are to be burned down."
And finally, although the story was not based on or suggested by any other sources, during the writing of Phoenix I came across a poem by Boris Pasternak that contains the following stanza:
Once more, frost will trace its patterns,
I'll be haunted once again
By my last-year's melancholy,
By that other wintertime.