Christmas Present

by T. Gabrielle

The snow fell harder. Whiteout, wasn't that the term for it? Illya Kuryakin followed the taillights of the truck ahead of him, eyes bleary with concentration and fatigue. He felt the wheels of his car fishtail as he took a turn too fast and steered into the skid, as if driving in blinding snowstorms were second nature to him. He focused again, trying hard to eliminate the distraction of his partner's persistent nagging. Like the snow, Napoleon Solo seemed unable to let up.

"Oh, just shut up, Napoleon," he thought. While accustomed to manning the wheel, everything seemed slippery, off-course, out of control. Their mission had ended a few hours ago. Everything had gone reasonably well until yesterday when they chased some Thrush crackpot through hill and dale, over the river and through the woods. Still, the microdot now nestled in Illya's breast pocket, close to his heart.

"Good job, gentlemen," Waverly had said. "I'll see you upon your return home." Home remained quite a distance away.

The car skidded once again and Napoleon sighed, checking his watch for the fifteenth time in as many minutes. "We're going to miss our plane," he said.

Illya stared straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel--whiteout, white knuckles. So they were going to miss their plane. So what? They had missed plenty of planes before, nothing novel here. Napoleon seldom allowed annoying details to ruffle his feathers--water off a duck's back--even if the water floated white this evening. Why was he so edgy?

"It might not be snowing in Chicago," Napoleon observed. "If we can just make it to O'Hare; flights leave for New York every fifteen minutes."

Illya managed a tense nod. If they could just make it to O'Hare, a good two hours away on the balmiest of evenings. And then imagine! They could race from gate to gate, from terminal to terminal! The car skidded again, hydroplaning briefly on a thin layer of ice beneath the snow. He stared longingly at the other cars, sensibly sidelined on the shoulder. Then he glanced at his friend, who was drumming his fingertips on the dashboard. Napoleon's anxiety made Illya uneasy but he couldn't afford him much attention. The truck in front of him picked up speed and Illya dutifully did the same. Its taillights were all he could see. He followed it as if it were a beacon from a lighthouse and wondered to what uncertain shore it beckoned.

"Why do you think Waverly sent us on this mission?" Napoleon asked, his fingers drumming on the dashboard. "Anybody could have done it, hardly more than a milk-run really. Plus, you kind of stand out in these dinky Midwestern towns, no offense."

"Napoleon, we were supposed to stay in Chicago, and though Midwestern, I think it's a cosmopolitan enough city that I don't," Illya paused and arched an eyebrow, "stand out. And you don't exactly fit in either, no offense. Do we really want to?"

Napoleon sighed again and then strong-armed the dashboard. "Watch out!"

Illya struggled to regain control of the car and lost the truck ahead of them briefly. He sped up, driving blind, and caught up with the taillights again.

"What are you going to kill us now?" Napoleon asked. "I should have driven. It's just a little snow. I should think you'd be used to it."

Illya did not respond. Napoleon, and Waverly for that matter, imagined he had been raised in an igloo, on a troika, in an ice palace, and yes, he had seen such storms before. He had endured long, character-enhancing winters, a frosty youth now embedded in his soul--but not from behind the steering wheel of a moving car, not even as a passenger.

He wanted to point out he had learned how to drive on a simulator in Survival School, could land an F-47 before he knew how to parallel park. He wanted to point out he had rescued Napoleon just a few hours ago, when the milk-run turned sour. He wanted to point out Napoleon had not even considered driving, rarely offered anymore, as if his partner had also become his goddamn chauffeur. He wanted to point out, no, he wanted to shout, that he hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours. Instead, he followed the truck. They rode in silence for a blessed few minutes before Napoleon, again, consulted his watch.

"We're not going to make our plane," he announced once more. "How did we get so far away? And with the holiday rush—"

Illya stared ahead, the visibility, if anything, worsening. "Christmas," he said, finally understanding. "You are worried about Christmas?"

"Yes, you Commie heathen!" Napoleon exclaimed, his voice low and dangerous as if daring opposition. "I would like to be home for Christmas!"

Illya smirked, vaguely amused. "Napoleon, can't Santa find you anywhere? If you've been a good little boy—"

"And when have you known me to be a good little boy?" he said in a calmer voice, waggling his eyebrows before he resumed tapping his fingers on the dashboard, rocking a little to some unheard melody.

"But isn't Santa forgiving, at least in America?" Illya had seen a brief glimmer of Napoleon's usual self and hoped to distract him with his small arsenal of Christmas customs. "In The Netherlands he has an assistant, Schwarte-Pete, who takes the bad children to Africa in a sack. Or maybe it's Spain. He takes them somewhere."

"Your endless supply of useless, esoteric trivia continues to astound me."

"Thank you. But since we are not in the Netherlands, I will not plan the rescue. He's just a little elf anyway."

"Illya!" The car slid sideways and Illya struggled to bring it under control as it spun in a tight circle. "You're overcorrecting!" Napoleon grabbed the steering wheel, preventing Illya from turning it, and the car lurched forward, emerging from the spin as gracefully as a figure skater. He then patted Illya's arm in a familiar gesture of reassurance. "Where the hell did you learn to drive?" he asked conversationally with almost a smile in his voice.

Illya shuddered, leaning forward slightly and breathing hard. He blinked rapidly, trying to locate the truck ahead of them, the only vehicle still on the road. Illya wondered what manner of amphetamine-crazed teamster controlled it. "To tell you the truth," he replied, "I've never driven in a snowstorm before." If the Schwarte-Pete nonsense did not engage Napoleon, this admission most certainly would. Illya never admitted to deficiencies in his experience or his training. Only desperation would compel him to make such a confession, a need to keep his friend's mood light.

"Oh, brother." Napoleon started to laugh, the near spinout seeming to relax him. If they had landed in a ditch he might have been close to euphoric. "Just try to get us to Chicago in one piece, would you, without flipping the car over. And how could this be your first experience driving in a snowstorm? Doesn't it snow all the time where you come from?"

Illya rolled his eyes. "Yes, Napoleon," he replied, teacher to dimwitted student. "But do you really think I had a '53 Chevy and took girls to the malt shop when I was growing up? I did drive in Paris and I thought that would prepare me for any eventuality. I was not correct."

Napoleon delivered a glancing blow to Illya's cheek, his hand balled in a loose fist. "Maybe we can get a weather report," he said, his other hand fiddling with the radio dial. Static and then: I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, with every Christmas card I write. May your days be merry and bright . . . Napoleon laughed and sang along. "And may all your Christmases be white."

"What would Christmas be without der Bingle?" the disc jockey enthused. "The weather outside is most certainly frightful. But let it snow! Hope you are curled in front of the fire roasting chestnuts with your honey, which reminds me . . ."

"Oh, good lord." Napoleon snapped off the radio. "I've always hated that song. I hate snow."

Illya barely suppressed a grin and bit his lower lip instead. "White Christmas" was actually one of the few Christmas carols he knew. He remembered hearing it late at night in Moscow, literally undercover or under covers anyway, on BBC Radio or maybe Voice of America--he preferred the former, wasn't supposed to listen to either--the news broadcasts were usually jammed anyway. He loved Bing Crosby's voice and he loved snow. Having no nostalgic memories to call upon of Christmas in New York, or anywhere else, he couldn't have cared less where he spent it. He only had one preference: not to be in this car with his moody friend. He looked down at the speedometer. Thirty miles-per-hour, not fast enough to get them anywhere soon or soon enough.

The truck ahead of them started to slow down and Illya pumped his brakes in response. "He's giving up," Illya said, giving a silent thanks.

"Pass him. What a coward!" Napoleon sounded edgy once again.

"I can't see the road, Napoleon. I was following his taillights. We have to stop."

"Shit, shit, shit," Napoleon observed. "We are not spending the night in this car. We've got to get to Chicago. Pull over and I'll drive."

Illya passed the truck and gestured helplessly. "I can't see and your eyes aren't any better."

The truck overtook them, hazards flashing an invitation as alluring as the star of Bethlehem, and Illya followed it blindly, exiting the highway. They found themselves in the parking lot of. . .they couldn't even tell where they were. "Another fine mess," Napoleon said. "Stay here, I'll be back as soon as I figure out where we are." He alighted from the car, slamming the door behind him.

Illya bent his head against the steering wheel, curious about his partner's strange mood, his obvious nervousness. Napoleon had almost always maintained his cool in the face of far more daunting adversaries than aggressively white Christmases. His partner's cool was the stuff of legend, a force of nature they both relied upon. Illya was not cool, just cold, a matter of degree that differentiated their personalities as surely as their hair color. He waited, so tired, the monotonous sound of the windshield wipers almost hypnotic. Was Christmas suddenly so important to his friend? It hadn't seemed so in the past; in fact, Napoleon often dodged his family during the holidays.

"You could sleep through the nuclear holocaust!"

Illya jumped awake, automatically reaching for his gun. He relaxed almost instantly and closed his eyes again. "Where are we?"

"St. Joseph. A Ramada Inn. C'mon, I.K. Get out. I got the last room. We were fortunate not to have to rely on your charm."

Illya alighted from the car and stepped into wet, thick snow almost a half a foot deep. Like his partner, he wore no overcoat and no hat. His shoes and socks were instantly soaked. He opened the trunk and retrieved their luggage, then followed Napoleon into the motel and just felt grateful not to be driving, to be close to sleep. He almost didn't mind carrying both their bags. He almost didn't notice Napoleon's was much heavier. Almost.

Illya paid little attention to their accommodations but Napoleon bristled as he opened the door to their room. "A single," he said, scowling at the lone double bed. "She said—"

"At least there's room at the Ramada Inn. It's better than a manger, Napoleon," Illya replied solemnly. "Do not lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas."

Napoleon turned around and directed a furious glare at his partner but his traitorous, mobile lips did not cooperate. He struggled to transform the unwelcome grin into an almost comic snarl. "I'll let you know when I need a lecture on the true meaning of Christmas from some Godless Commie."

Illya shrugged grandly, rolling his eyes. "I'll sleep on the floor. I don't care." It was true, he could sleep through the nuclear holocaust and he could sleep on the floor of a Ramada Inn. Not that he would. Napoleon and he had shared plenty of beds, even cots. He dropped the suitcases at the foot of the bed, a little more forcefully than necessary and they thudded to the floor. He remembered an old professor of his at Cambridge who began every lecture by intoning ponderously: "Gravity never sleeps."

"You're not sleeping on the floor. Don't play the martyr," Napoleon said, voice purring challenge--goading.

Illya stared at him, almost ready to take the bait. Released from the tensions of driving, he felt resentful, tired of Napoleon's mood, tired of having to placate him, but mostly just plain tired. "What's wrong with you?" he asked, voice tinged with curiosity and only a hint of the animosity he felt.

"I'm sorry." Napoleon bowed his head, looking like a chastised little boy. "I want to be home for Christmas. It's a normal wish, don't you think?"

Illya folded his arms, chin lifting slightly. He stared down his nose at his partner. "Yes, I suppose it is a culturally reasonable desire," he agreed. "Especially if you were, say, five-years-old. But you are correct. I am a Commie heathen. I do not share your sentiments. Santa Claus, in all his various guises, has never found me in the past and will probably not find me here." He smiled, almost sweetly, his eyes as cold and blue as clear winter skies. "I do not mind spending Christmas with you."

Napoleon snorted, unappeased, even offended, by the falsely sweet smile. "Well I mind!" he exclaimed.

"Obviously. I just don't understand why it's suddenly so important. We've worked Christmases before." Illya picked up his suitcase, swung it on the bed and snapped it open, the sound satisfyingly angry. He extracted his pajamas and his dopp kit and started to walk toward the bathroom.

"I was going to ask Anna to marry me," Napoleon blurted, his voice soft as if awed by his unexpected disclosure.

Illya paused and turned to face his partner. "What?" he asked, trying to sound simply inquisitive, not shocked, as he tried to keep the rage of disbelief from his eyes. "Who is Anna?" he asked, admiring his delicate phrasing. He had almost asked: "Which one is Anna?"

The radiant smile transformed Napoleon's features, the tensions of the day on hold, if not erased. He looked like a little boy who had just seen Santa. "I've never felt this way before," he said. "She's the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me. We've been going out since last June. Haven't you noticed I haven't had eyes for anyone else?"

Illya was a trained observer. He briefly reviewed Napoleon's behavior over the last few months, disturbed he had been so thick. But, no, he had not noticed. He had not noticed because his partner had not changed. Illya mentally counted at least three girls he knew Napoleon had slept with, remembered being locked out of his own, or rather their shared hotel rooms, on two of those occasions. The third time, Solo had forgotten the pre-arranged signal and he had caught him en flagrante dilecto and hastily retreated back to the hotel bar. Where were they? Oslo? Stockholm? Somewhere blond. He had allowed himself to be picked up by some bored, vacuous and obviously married Swiss businesswoman at least ten years his senior. The sex was unmemorable--he had really been more intent on finding a bed to sleep in--the rest of it was a mere complication toward that goal. Illya finally met Napoleon's bemused eyes, realizing he had paused too long, lost in his mental calculations.

"It will be different when we're married," Napoleon explained lamely. "She's all I think about."

"And how flattering for her, I'm sure," Illya replied. "We all want to be assured we are paramount in our lover's mind at all times--if you stray, if she does--as long as you think about each other. That's all that matters." Illya tapped his temple in understanding and then twirled his index finger in a wide circle, letting Napoleon know he thought he was crazy.

Napoleon frowned as if stung by Illya's disapproval. "I told you it will be different."

"Yes, of course," Illya said quietly. "What about me?"

"No, I don't think about you when I—"

Illya blushed but his eyes flashed with annoyance. "No that is hardly what—" Illya glared and tried to compose himself. "You cannot be married and still—"

"Yes, I've thought this through," Napoleon interrupted. "If the policy cannot be changed for me, I will resign. It's not really set in stone, you know."

Illya nodded, not sure whether Napoleon meant the engagement or the policy. He schooled his expression to a familiar blank, as if this meant nothing to him, as if this were not another manner of betrayal. His life had been full of loss, each one unexpected and hurtful, nothing new here. Napoleon and he had become friends, or so he had thought. He had struggled to keep their relationship merely professional and tried, now, to be unfazed by his unexpected success. They were partners--Solo and Kuryakin--that was all. Associates. Colleagues. Co-workers. Apparently nothing deeper. If they had been friends, he would have been introduced to this Anna. Illya's mouth felt suddenly dry. "Anna was my mother's name," he said, sensing the admission was almost poignant in its pointlessness

Napoleon grinned, his eyes dancing mischief. "I don't think she's your mother," he said.

"My mother is dead." Illya stared hard at his partner, humiliated when he felt the sting of tears in his eyes. He blinked them away. He did not mourn his mother's death. The tears were for a more immediate loss, but they were transient, melting like snowflakes as soon as they appeared. "I'm going to go have a drink," he said. "You can just go to sleep and I won't disturb you when I return."

"I'm not really tired," Napoleon said, suddenly affable. "I'll join you."

Illya ducked his head realizing he had been caught and his mouth twitched with something approximating a smile. A crack in his icy façade and Napoleon, that great, intuitive reader of people, did not know him well enough to sense its source. "If you wish," he said, allowing a sorrowful and almost wholly unfelt tremor in his voice. Better for Napoleon to imagine he mourned his mother.

The too bright bar at the Ramada Inn pulsed with stranded, disappointed travelers, who chatted about snow and interrupted Christmas journeys. They were refugees, but strangely celebratory, some gathered around the piano bar bellowing Christmas carols. "The weather outside is frightful, but your smile is so delightful. And since we've no place to go . . ." Napoleon ordered a double Chivas, neat, for himself and a double vodka on the rocks for his partner. They stood together at the bar rail. "Merry Christmas, my friend," Napoleon said, clinking Illya's glass in a conciliatory gesture.

Illya picked up on the guilt. "Happy Christmas," he mumbled back. He purposely did not add "my friend," and hoped Napoleon noticed. He downed the vodka in one swallow.

Napoleon was already motioning to the bartender. Illya cautioned himself to take it easy. He rarely sipped vodka and prided himself on his ability to remain in control--one of life's lessons he refused to learn--a particularly Russian form of ignorance. He tried to remind himself he was not a good drinker even if he liked to imagine so.

"Napoleon," Illya said, swirling his refill, staring at the drink. "Why have you not introduced me to your fiancée?

Napoleon chuckled. "She's not my fiancée yet; I haven't given her the ring. And she doesn't know what I do. She is young. I just would change things if you met her. Hard to explain."

Illya did not understand but nodded. "You would give up your career for her?" Illya tried to sip his second drink but found himself gulping it down. He wanted to add, "You would give me up?" But wasn't that clear?

A middle-aged couple sang a duet at the piano bar with the self-conscious charm of a party piece frequently performed. "I really can't stay." "But baby it's cold outside." "I've got to go 'way" "But baby it's cold outside."

"Haven't you ever been in love?" Napoleon asked.

Illya lowered his eyes, considering. He watched the singers, who whimsically had exchanged the usual gender roles; the woman seduced, the man demurred. In love? He hadn't even wanted a friend. In love? Everyone he had loved... Illya bit his full lower lip, already numbed by the vodka. "No," he finally said. "I have never been in love."

Napoleon's expression warmed with compassion--Father Damien consoling one of his lepers possibly looked as saintly. "Love makes you do strange things. Reconsider your life. I guess you wouldn't know."

"No. Do try to explain it to me." His voice thickened with bitterness and sarcasm, not to mention the vodka.

"Illya, when you fall in love, if you fall in love, you'll find—"

"Oh, shut up, Napoleon." Illya finally said it out loud. It felt good.

"What's your problem? So, I have a life. Haven't you ever wanted to escape? Haven't you ever wanted to live a normal life?"

Illya gestured to the bartender. "I have escaped," he snapped. "And your life and mine are somewhat intertwined. Please forgive my impudence if I am startled you have changed your stripes, so to speak, without any thought, without regard to me."

Napoleon smiled tightly, the compassion edging away. "Jealousy doesn't become you. And it's spots."

"I hardly mean to be unbecoming to you." Illya said, strangling his third vodka in his hands. He picked the ice cubes from his glass and piled them precariously in an ashtray on the bar. He admired America's inexhaustible supply of ice cubes, but they impeded the flow of the vodka. "Tell me about your Anna."

And Napoleon did, with the selfish abandon of new love, not intending to be cruel. Anna was beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, a senior at Barnard, a political science major...

Illya listened with bored disdain. He watched the couple at the piano bar: "The neighbors might think." "But baby it's bad out there." "Say what's in the drink?" "No cabs to be had out there."

Christmas morning and Illya woke up early, exhausted and hungover. He had not slept on the floor but in the double bed next to his partner. No, not exactly next to his partner--Napoleon's leg was thrown over him, his face buried in the hollow of Illya's neck, one hand tangled in his hair. They had shared a bed before. Illya had said their lives were somewhat intertwined and he had awoken before to this reality--Napoleon holding him, almost pinning him in place--and he liked the feeling of safety. Occasionally he wondered if Napoleon even knew what he did in his sleep. He did not remember going to bed but reconstructed the prior evening almost instantly. St. Joseph. Ramada Inn. Snowstorm. Piano bar. Vodka. Lots of vodka.

Things had changed. He felt the disappointment, as if wrenched from a sweet dream, and pushed Napoleon's leg away from him, disentangling himself from his grasp. Napoleon grunted in protest and then returned to sleep. They were both naked. This was a new twist to the nocturnal clinging.

Illya's clothes were arranged neatly on a chair, trousers mindful of the crease, such as it was, jacket draped over the back, gun and holster on the bedside table next to his communicator. His turtleneck was folded so perfectly it looked like a minimalist display at Brooks Brothers. His socks and underwear were in one of the hotel's clear plastic laundry bags beside the chair, his shoes neatly matched next to the bed. Not really like him to be so fastidious and this thought made him flush uncomfortably. He gathered all the clothing but the jacket, balled it up impatiently and threw it toward his suitcase. He then extracted a change of clothing that looked pretty much like what he had worn the day before.

Illya sat in a chair, already showered and dressed, when Napoleon finally awoke. He did not watch his partner stretch, absorbed in his book, or rather the Ramada Inn's book, a Gideon's Bible. "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold . . ." Illya bent his head, concentrating, but not really, red-rimmed eyes shaded by green-tinted reading glasses.

"A Christmas miracle," Napoleon purred, voice low and seductive. Illya looked up, meeting his friend's amused stare. "I've had a number of reactions in my time, but you're the first conversion, my dear little Commie. Or are you looking for a loophole?" Napoleon stretched, supremely self-satisfied.

"It is not snowing," Illya said, trying to ignore the implications of his partner's statement and his maddeningly sunny demeanor, not to mention his causally displayed body. "We can drive to Chicago and you can see your fiancée before the magical day is over."

"I have no fiancée. Yet." Napoleon grinned and shook his head. "You really are cold, aren't you," he said but grinned again as he closed the door to the bathroom.

Illya shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Everyone said he was cold and he did his best to cultivate the impression. He shifted again and felt unaccustomedly content. He did not remember much of the previous night. Napoleon probably steered him to bed, as he had done before. For the past few days he had not had enough sleep and he had drunk too much last night--he could feel both the deficiency and the excess now. And? A dream perhaps?--he had had them before. Napoleon's mouth on his; his hand, no his mouth this time on Napoleon's cock, Napoleon's hand on his and . . .nothing more, just a dream. He looked uneasily at the bed. The dream lingered no more vividly than the others.

He remembered being in a snit, a jealous snit, comfortable roles back in place. Napoleon said he was getting married, was ready to throw U.N.C.L.E. aside, ready to throw him aside as well, as if their friendship meant no more than his mother's love. Why did he think of his mother? The soon-to-be fiancée's name, Anna, evoked a tenuous connection to his past. "Anna, girl before you go now, I want you to know, now that I still love you so, but if he loves you more, go with him. Anna. Go with him." Illya shook the sappy Beatles' song out of his mind. But it persisted maddeningly, stuck in place. "All of my life I've been searching for a girl to love me like I love you."

He recalled the couple singing "Baby It's Cold Outside" at the piano bar, reversing roles. He remembered at least that about the night before.

Anna. Mama. Illya shook his head. She had spanked him and yelled at him the day she died, the day she was shot. He had climbed a tree and pelted the Nazi officer he had seen her kissing, pelted him with rocks, a whole pocketful. He was small, only seven, and agile, hidden from view, high up in the tree. The soldier could not see him. He could not throw hard but his aim was true, the height of the tree lending sting to his projectiles. Gravity never sleeps, even in wartime.

When he came home, his mother greeted him with a slap in the face. "You don't understand, Illya Nickovetch. Do not meddle, you'll get us all killed. Do not behave like a child," she said, cold blue eyes warmed with rage. Then she really started hitting him, armed with his father's belt, the one he often wished his father had taken with him. His bubushka, his father's mother, intervened, yanking him into her arms, her dark eyes black with fury. She called his mother a whore. The two women often argued over him, even before he was left alone with them, even before his father went off to war. Illya felt safe in his grandmother's embrace; bubushka loved him, not his mother, never his mother.

"I hate you, Mama."

Those were the last words he said to her. But she had died for Kiev, a partisan, knifed the soldier she had kissed, slit his throat. And he still hated her. Even when he understood, he hated her. Even when he cried for her in the orphanage he hated her. Even when he glimpsed a trace of her cold blue eyes staring back at him from a mirror, he hated her. Hated her, as he became so much like her. She might have loved Russia but she never loved him. That was always easier for him to believe than the truth.

"Penny for your thoughts."

Illya looked up startled. "My thoughts have always been more valuable," he said, his voice satisfyingly steady, chilled with irritation. Cold. He shoved his hands into his empty jacket pockets--strange--for a moment he thought he would find rocks. He could throw hard now, but he had far better weapons.

They drove in silence, the sun reflecting brightly on the snow. The expressway was plowed and salted, the storm of the previous night tamed. Illya felt his partner's steady gaze, but kept his eyes forward. They listened to the radio--Christmas carols interspersed with Top 40. Napoleon, in full magnanimous mode, allowed the radio. Normally he didn't even want to hear the news. He liked to talk, even play word games in the car, ones he even won sometimes when Illya was very tired, like today. The radio, especially rock and roll, was an unexpected treat. Illya knew he was being humored. You say you're going to go and call it quits, gonna chuck it all and break our love to bits, breaking up, I wish you never said it, oh no, we'll both regret it . . .

Napoleon finally broke the silence. "Has anyone ever told you you're cute when you're drunk?" he asked.

Illya slid his eyes sideways and caught Napoleon's leer. "It is my unhappy understanding I am cute, drunk or not."

Napoleon laughed throatily, the sound low and almost dirty. He shifted closer to Illya, crowding him, invading his space. "How do you know 'The Whiffenpoof Song?'"

"The what?"

" 'The Whiffenpoof Song'. 'We're poor little lambs who have lost our way, bah, bah, bah,' " Napoleon sang, encouraging his friend's unsteady memory.

Illya tried not to cringe. "Why do you want to know?" he asked, but immediately regretted his question. He suspected why Napoleon asked. "The Whiffenpoof Song"—was that what it was called?--probably lurked somewhere in most bottles of booze. Somewhere close to the bottom.

"I had a friend from Yale when I was at Cambridge," he said, as if it were of no consequence. "He, um, used to sing it sometimes." When he was drunk off his arse in a pub, Illya did not add. What was his name? Wesley something, something the third, Trey to his friends. Illya was not his friend really, but remembered the song. He remembered the song, but not singing it.

"I'm a Princeton man, myself. Great song though. Those Elis, as they call themselves, had lots of songs. Though I don't really recall your middle eighth from last night—'goodness gracious great balls of fire.'

Illya nodded focusing on his driving, which did not exactly tax his skills, as it had the night before. He tried hard to ignore his partner, no longer nagging, but just as distracting.

"The poor piano player," Napoleon continued, "no one wanted him to return once you started your concert. I wasn't so worried about him but those three big boyfriends of the Tri-Delt trio gave me pause. I thought they were going to kill you when their girlfriends piled on the piano bench next to you. 'We've been good but we can't last, hurry Christmas, hurry fast,' Napoleon sang. "I don't think they were being so good."

What girls? Illya tried hard to ignore Napoleon's merry memories and tried harder to ignore Napoleon's fingers lightly touching his collar, casually examining his hair strand by strand. He shivered when Napoleon ran his index finger along his jaw line. Long ago he used to flinch at Napoleon's touch, then allowed it reluctantly, until he finally welcomed it and sometimes returned it. Mr. Waverly had reprimanded them, on more than a few occasions, for their unprofessional friendship. Not the friendship per se, partners often developed friendships, but the intensity of it. What had he called it once?--their mutual infatuation. Illya smiled, remembering this particular rebuke. Both he and Napoleon had abandoned their mission to see to the other's safety. Much to Waverly's chagrin, their disregard of direct orders had resulted in success. He remembered Waverly pausing irritably to refill his pipe, bushy eyebrows narrowed in disdain as he regrouped for a continued tirade. In the interval, Illya had blown Napoleon a sarcastic kiss. Napoleon had laughed, the sound exploding rudely through the tense silence, a schoolboy burst of hilarity interrupting a lesson. Waverly dismissed Illya and, well, he didn't know exactly what happened afterward. Napoleon never said. He never asked.

But now, he found himself flinching once again from his partner's touch. Unlike when they were driving the night before, it was not at all reassuring, but sensual and proprietary.

"No one's ever called me 'Polya before," Napoleon said, hand idly massaging Illya's neck, refusing to allow him to escape. What was he supposed to do anyway, jump out of the car?

"Napoleon," he warned. "Would you please stop."

"Are you going to pretend last night never happened?" Napoleon interrupted, pulling Illya's hair, demanding an answer.

Romantic Gary, Indiana, stinking only mildly, the steel mills deserted but not shut down for the holiday, and a moment of truth. Illya wrinkled his nose, distracted by the stench. He did not know what to say and listened instead to the radio. Tried to please her. She only played one night stands. Tried to please her, she only played one night stands now. He said nothing, pretended nothing. He did not remember.

"Illya!" Napoleon tugged on his hair again. "Say something! You said enough last night. Are you having second thoughts? I know we probably shouldn't have, but you were so adamant, so sure. You were great! You can't pretend this was the first time for you with another guy. You were a little too, uh, inventive to play the ravished virgin this morning. So what's the problem? Wasn't I good for you? God, you were loud enough. I almost considered gagging you." He grinned, wagging both eyebrows. "I guess I did."

Illya rolled his eyes. Lord have mercy on such as we . . .goodness gracious great balls of fire. He recalled the piano bar hazily, almost less vivid than a dream. The pianist had taken a break and he took his place, not only sang the damn Whiffenpoof song but played it. Bah, bah, bah. And now Napoleon fished for the age-old lover's assurance: "Was it as good for you--?" Illya stared straight ahead, hoping O'Hare Airport would materialize magically in the distance. "You told me you are getting married," he finally said, dodging the subject.

Napoleon chuckled. "Ah, still jealous! I told you jealousy didn't become you but I had no idea. You actually wear it well. Was it your intention to make it harder for me to even consider leaving."

"No," Illya replied. He had a vague idea of what Napoleon was talking about.

"So you regret what we did? A bad idea, perhaps?"

"Perhaps. One of our worst really." And it was indeed.

Napoleon withdrew his hand. "So, I suppose you want to blame me?" he asked, miffed.


They rode the rest of the way in silence. They hardly spoke all the way to La Guardia, and took separate cabs, home, at last, for the holidays.

Illya unlocked the door to his apartment, thankful to be alone. He did not consider it home but still it was nice to finally be away from Napoleon and the nebulous ghosts of Christmas present. He opened his freezer, sometimes a source of dubious nutrition, and rejected the bottle of vodka and the time consuming Swanson TV dinner there in favor of a pint of Neapolitan ice cream. He took it and a spoon to his living room and put on the record album already on the turntable: "John Coltrane, A Love Supreme." He listened, shoveling the ice cream into his mouth like an automaton and tried hard not to think.

Napoleon sniffed the nostalgic scent of pine as he entered his apartment. He looked at the little Christmas tree he had decorated with Anna and smiled. It hardly brought back memories of Christmas. Pathetic really, both his memories and the little tree. Already its needles littered the makeshift skirt surrounding it, one of his white sheets, folded to look like snow. Christmas. Such a loaded holiday.

He half-heartedly believed in Santa, after all he was only a month shy of his seventh birthday, the year of reason in the Catholic Church. Should he put such nonsense aside? He recalled his parents were arguing, both dressed in holiday finery, neither having been to bed, neither quite sober. His mother, again, had been out all night. Illya was quite mistaken, Santa could not find him anywhere and he had been good that year. One of the last years he even tried to be good. His parents seemed surprised to see their son perched on the stairs, as if he were an afterthought to their discontent, a dark punctuation mark ending their discussion. His mother recovered first. "Santa left your presents in the attic," she said nonchalantly, always the consummate actress, and went to fetch them. That was the last year he spent Christmas with his mother, the year he stopped believing in Santa, among other things. Oh yes, he grew up, reached the age of reason. .

Napoleon sat at his desk and dialed Anna's number, sighing as it rang unanswered. She was probably at her parents' house and he looked up the number. He started to dial and hesitated, hung up the phone, then dialed again.


"Merry Christmas, Anna."

"Oh, Napoleon. What happened to you? Your service said you were out of town. I had almost given you up." She spoke brightly, no recrimination in her voice, just glad to hear from him.

"Business meetings," Napoleon sighed, the weariness, at least, not fabricated. And what kind of God-awful company did he work for that held meetings on Christmas day? Meet my boss, Alexander Scrooge!

"I didn't know insurance was such a rat race, you poor thing. We're going to eat at about seven--Cook took last night and this morning off. Can you still make it? My parents are anxious to meet you." Again her tone remained cheerful, undemanding, oblivious.

"Uh, yes." How broad-minded to give the cook almost a day off for Christmas! Somehow he hadn't quite worked out meeting the parents in his engagement scenario. Parents, particularly mothers, never seemed to care for him. Still, he opened his center drawer and slid the square, beribboned Tiffany box into his breast pocket.

Anna immediately sensed his ambivalence. "They're not so bad. C'mon Napoleon, you can't spend Christmas alone. You don't have to stay long. We'll eat dinner and then we can go back to your apartment." There was almost a wink in her voice.

"Um, yes. It sounds, uh, delightful." He flashed forward to Christmas yet to come. In-laws, babies, plans, domesticity and the thought appealed almost as much as it repelled. "Anna, would you mind if I brought my partner?" Why was he asking? Illya would not come with him. Illya was barely speaking to him. He had slipped from 'Polya to a virtual nonentity.

"Your partner?" Just a slight hesitation crept into her voice. "Sure. I didn't know you had a partner. Of course, if he doesn't have anywhere to go." Anna, so sweet, so coddled, could not imagine having nowhere to go on Christmas.

"Uh, no. He's, uh, Russian. From Russia."

"Russia? And he works in insurance?" she asked, a small note of disbelief marring the cheerfulness. Anna was sweet, but not stupid.

"Uh, yes. No. Um, he works, uh, well, I don't think he'll come anyway."

"Do ask him. Is here there?"

"No. I'll call him. See you in a little while."

Napoleon dialed Illya's number, feeling pretty much like a fool, a guilty fool. Anna deserved better than a phony insurance agent who had, just the night before...he shook the memory from his head. And if it weren't Illya it would be someone else. Judging from his partner's reaction this morning, it would have to be someone else. What a cold son-of-a-bitch! He let the phone ring, disturbed when Illya did not answer. "'Polya!" He could still hear the helpless catch in Illya's voice and he shivered. Maybe not so cold. Still, that was about all he 'd said, that and a few requests--requests that sounded like demands. He tried his communicator, "Open Channel D." Again no answer. He called headquarters.

"Merry Christmas, Napoleon."

"Merry Christmas, Debbie. Has Illya checked in?"

He heard the pause, what he came to think of as the "always Illya" pause. The jealousy his U.N.C.L.E. admirers felt for his relationship with his elusive partner secretly amused him. Little did he know how right they were, but he did now. This knowledge amused him and he almost laughed out loud. "Yes, he checked in an hour ago," Debbie chirped, sounding crisply professional and thoroughly annoyed. "He's not on duty tonight. Didn't you guys just get back?"

"Yes. Thank you. And Merry Christmas."

"And to you. But I'm Jewish. That's why I'm on tonight."

Napoleon let himself into Illya's apartment, not knowing what to expect. His partner had not answered the doorbell or responded to his knock. The alarms were armed; he must be inside. Nothing seemed amiss. Still, Napoleon pulled his gun. Christmas traditionally was a time of calm between U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush, but the truce, the cease-fire, was essentially tenuous, a peace as fragile as a bird's wing. It paid to be cautious.

He caught his breath when he saw Illya sprawled on the floor, legs and arms akimbo, and resisted the urge to rush over to him, check his pulse. Illya's head was perched at an uncomfortable angle on the first shelf of an overflowing bookcase, an empty square ice cream carton at his side. Napoleon realized he was merely asleep, snoring lightly, headphones attached to his oblivious head. He slept deeply, the blessed sleep of the very young, the very stoned or the very hungover. The stereo's volume was cranked high. Other arms reach out to me, other eyes smile tenderly, still in peaceful dreams I see, the road leads back to you.. . . Ray Charles' voice sounded tinny, yet clear from across the room.

So that's why he didn't answer the phone or the door. Napoleon walked over to his friend and considered nudging him with his foot until he saw Illya's hand casually cradling his Walther, like a steel teddy bear. His partner was abandoned in sleep but not quite defenseless. Section Two agents were notoriously difficult to awaken, akin to defusing a bomb. One had to approach gingerly, carefully, or risk triggering the wrong wire. Napoleon smiled, straddling Illya, crouching just above his stomach, his hand almost circling his wrist, poised to squeeze the gun out of his grasp. He braced himself for a violent response but Illya just blinked his eyes open and sighed.

"Hi." The dark blue eyes stared up, flat and composed. Hardly defused, the bomb appeared to be a dud.

Napoleon felt annoyed, primed for, at least, a struggle that would lead to what exactly? What did he have in mind? He surmised Illya had not been asleep since he entered the apartment. Damned if he would be at a loss for words or show his own surprise. "Hi," he responded, as if often awoke his partner by sitting on his stomach. His fingers, itching for a fight, exerted pressure on Illya's gun hand, his other hand dislodged the headphones. Ray Charles continued to sing: Georgia, Georgia, no peace I find, just an old sweet song . . . "You know, Illya, that's our Georgia not yours."

Illya's eyes narrowed in confusion before he groaned with comprehension. "Yes, Napoleon. But isn't this Georgia a girl?" he asked, eyes wide and thoughtful. "May I ask why you're here?"

"You, uh, didn't answer your phone. Or your communicator. Or the door."


"I was worried."

"I am touched." Illya rolled his eyes. "Are you going to sit on me for the night then?"

"Well, as a matter of fact I may." Napoleon leaned forward, suddenly eager for a kiss like the ones they exchanged the night before. Illya turned his head away. Napoleon twisted his fingers in his partner's hair and pulled his head forward, delighted to see the blue eyes finally react, flashing with unease. He pressed his lips to Illya's mouth and felt the body beneath him acquiesce, mouth parting invitingly, tongue just starting to tease. It was only when Napoleon landed flat on his back, did he realized this was an early lesson from Survival School--not playing possum 101 perhaps, but its companion piece--relax, lull and strike.

Illya rolled two body-lengths away, hand reunited with his gun. He set it on the coffee table, threat implicit, and smiled impishly, pleased with himself. Napoleon could best him in a fair fight with a referee and rules, not the kind of contests in which they ever engaged. "What are you doing here? " Illya asked. "You are home for Christmas, as you wished. I thought you were intent on getting engaged."

Napoleon rubbed his wounded pride, extending his prominent chin warily. "You so quickly forget your 'Polya."

"My 'Polya?" Illya breathed the endearing name seductively, sarcastically. He lowered his head shyly and stared up at Napoleon, his eyes blazing with caustic innocence, a mockery of his mien the night before.

Napoleon caught his breath. He knew Illya was making fun of him, but still, his expression recalled the too-recent memory and he ached for a repetition of last night. "We have to talk about this."

"All right. You can start by telling me about it. I was drunk, Napoleon. Whiteout then blackout. I don't remember."

"You don't don't—" Napoleon tried to rearrange his own memories of the peculiarly lascivious Illya of the night before, breathtaking in his abandon. His heart thudded painfully with disappointment, as if he had lost Illya already to another--to oblivion perhaps, to indifference, to regret. Oh no! Not his Illya! He would not allow him to withdraw, he never had. Since almost the day they met, he had never been fooled by Illya's reserve. His icy exterior, as hard as the shell of a turtle, hid a vulnerability, a sweetness that Napoleon always saw. He hadn't coaxed Illya out of his shell, as many thought, he just never acknowledged it, and Illya stopped trying to retreat into it, inexplicably trusting him and apparently only him. It was a little overwhelming, this trust, bestowed upon him without hesitation and long before he deserved it, like being befriended by a vicious little animal from the wild. He didn't always understand Illya, but he knew him well. Last night did not even surprise him really; their friendship always flitted on the edge of this final boundary. Sex, much as he enjoyed and pursued it, seldom held much meaning for Napoleon but last night had been different. How could Illya not remember an experience that seared his soul? How could he relegate it to a drunken lapse in judgment?

"So you think I took advantage of you?" he asked, expressing his deepest fear.

"Not necessarily. Do you? Did you?" Illya was simply curious, no heat in his inquiry.

"No! I don't do that. You know I would never knowingly seduce a virgin, or rather—"

But Illya was already smiling, his eyes shining with disdain. "You know I am not a virgin. So, did I jump you or did you jump me?" he asked, the curiosity growing cold.

"You jumped me," Napoleon replied, then immediately amended his statement, uncomfortable, for once, with his blatant dishonesty. "Uh, not exactly jumped, you sort of tripped and I, uh, I—"

"Always the gentleman caught me," Illya supplied. "So dashing as ever, my 'Polya." The "'Polya"' was whispered seductively but with an icy awareness. "Look, whatever happened, happened." He shrugged. "You should forget it and, as I cannot remember, so I also shall forget. It doesn't matter."

"But it does. Illya, you were incredible. I didn't understand this morning, how you could just walk away, how you could just—"

"It doesn't matter," Illya repeated, his jaw tightening. "Don't you have an engagement to attend to?"

"Oh that?" Napoleon waved his hand in dismissal. "My attorney actually told me not to give her the ring on Christmas. It could be construed as a gift." Napoleon patted his breast pocket absentmindedly. "I thought I might wait until New Year's Eve."

"How romantic, consulting your attorney. Are you also drawing up a pre-nuptial agreement? You've always had delusions of wealth." The derision in Illya's tone warred with the sadness in his eyes, a small clink in the barrier he was erecting.

Napoleon seized upon this small opening. "Would you like to meet her?" he asked. "Her parents are having Christmas dinner. They live on the Upper East Side. You can come with me."

Illya lowered his chin, smirking. "Really, Napoleon. How gauche! Do you want to rub both of our faces in your duplicity? Perhaps you do. No. I may have my own in-laws someday; I don't wish yours."

"But you were offended I hadn't introduced you to her," Napoleon challenged. "And it's Christmas. You shouldn't be alone. Plus, you're so good with the mothers."

"Oh, please. I have always been alone. When have you ever cared if I am alone? I don't really care, why should you?" Illya looked down, eyes guarded. He licked his lips slowly, absently, unconsciously sensual.

Napoleon crawled forward, closing the distance between them, drawn to the contradiction between Illya's words and his facial expressions, so often at odds. "There will be food," he purred, trying to appeal to his friend's Achilles heal. He glanced down at the empty pint of ice cream. "Neapolitan." He tasted every syllable. "Please, come with me, Illya."

Illya inhaled sharply as Napoleon grasped his ankle. "Napoleon," he said, letting himself be pulled into his partner's embrace. "Napoleon!" The word was strangled, muffled by the kiss. He shook his head. "No, nyet, non." But he opened his mouth to the insistent tongue. Napoleon held him tightly, well aware of his partner's ambivalence and primed to defend himself against it. He would not be thrown again and bent Illya's head backwards against the couch, disarming him with the power of his kisses and the strength of his body. "Napoleon," Illya mumbled again, this time breathless.

"Yes?" Napoleon asked, withdrawing his mouth. He stared dispassionately into the clear blue eyes, inviting a challenge, expecting it.

"What exactly is the point of this?"

"Does there have to be a point?" Napoleon leaned forward again but Illya turned his head away.

"Yes." Illya sounded shaky but certain. "You told me you were getting engaged. And now, what do you want? You want to, um, I'm not sure I have the words. You want to—"

"Fuck you?" Napoleon prompted.

Illya blushed, shaking his head. "I guess that's the term for it and it has shades of meaning in this circumstance. You want to," Illya hesitated, "you want to fuck me, and then take me to meet the love of your life and what? Shall we all become one happy family? Happy families are all alike."

Napoleon laughed. "Ah, yes. I'd like you to meet Anna and I also want you."


"Why not?" His hand carded through Illya's silky hair. He leaned closer.

"Why not? Isn't it obvious why not?"

Napoleon traced his partner's cheek with outstretched fingers, almost a gesture of comfort. His other hand idly stroked first one thigh then the other. Then he reached between them, grinning in triumph. Illya was as hard as the night before. "Some things are obvious, yes."

Illya pressed his erection into the searching hand, his eyes closing with pleasure as his mouth opened to another kiss. He smiled, arching his back, just short of surrender. He looked down suddenly. "I try not to think with that head," he said. "It has always had a mind of it's own and has seldom been wise. Einstein said ..."

"Oh, screw Einstein," Napoleon replied, having heard enough about the theory of relativity for at least one lifetime.

Illya smiled crookedly and was not deterred. "Einstein said, 'The upper half plans and thinks, while the lower half determines our fate.'" Illya smiled again. "He made little effort to control his lower half."

Napoleon chuckled, sincerely amused, admiring Einstein for once. He continued to stroke, encouraged by the trembling response his ministrations produced. "Don't think, Illya. Don't think." He started to undo his partner's belt. "Don't think."

Illya watched him, as if frozen, by Napoleon's technique, how deftly and quickly the practiced fingers moved from the belt to the button to the zipper. "I cannot help thinking," Illya said, voice not entirely steady.

"Don't you like this?" Napoleon asked, stroking Illya's cock.

Illya shivered. "It's obvious I like it. I just think—"

"I told you not to think. Can't you just feel for a change?" Illya shrugged and arched his back in mute response. "C'mon, baby. Let's go to bed. Let's do this right." Napoleon stood and reached for Illya's hand.

He was surprised when Illya simply grasped his outstretched hand and followed him into the bedroom. His partner's curious obedience had always been so at odds with his headstrong personality. Napoleon found it flattering, in a way, as long as he didn't examine the phenomenon too closely. He wanted to believe Illya trusted him, even admired him with his own brand of grudging respect. Deep down, however, he sensed his partner's obedience was a learned behavior, merely a favor he granted his superiors, a by-product of years spent under the thumb of one authority or another. But the dichotomy between Illya's willfulness and his deference seemed particularly irresistible tonight--tempting.

Napoleon leaned against Illya's dresser, surveying the room as if he owned it, or at least belonged there. Not that it resembled his finely-appointed bedroom. It was stark in comparison, as warm as an army barracks, though not quite as tidy. Illya stood before his unmade bed, shoulders slumped in uncertainty, resigned yet unsure.

"Didn't your mother ever teach you to make your bed?" Napoleon scolded. He had wanted to lighten the mood but immediately regretted the reference to Illya's apparently dearly departed mother.

Illya smiled, amused rather than offended. "As a matter of fact, no," he replied. "My grandmother made my bed at home. I learned how to make a bed in the orphanage."

"Like that?" Napoleon gestured at the rumpled bed, the sheets almost in knots, the worn patchwork quilt balled at the foot of it. He tried not to imagine what would cause such disarray.

"No. If I made it properly you could bounce a ko... um, I guess you would say a quarter off of it. America is a free country. I thought we could choose the state of our bed here." Illya raised his chin in characteristic defiance, as if exalting the basic principles of the founding fathers: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and nobody has to make his bed. What a nation!

Napoleon laughed. "I do not see freedom so much as appallingly lax personal habits, an erosion of standards, a—"

"Napoleon," Illya interrupted, "no one has ever refused to sleep with me because of the state of my bed." He arched an eyebrow in challenge.

"Well, far be it for me to be the first," Napoleon said. He sensed this idiotic discussion could last for hours; they had debated far more ridiculous topics in the past. He looked at his friend--eyes sleepy, hair disheveled, trousers undone--and still oddly menacing. "Take off your clothes." Napoleon's voice had unconsciously assumed the cadence of one in charge, his commanding CEA tone. He'd see just how far his partner would tolerate his game of "Simon says." His cock twitched as he watched Illya's hesitation, so different from the night before. Illya said he had not remembered last night. Neither had really been in charge, the atmosphere equalized, lightened by their mutual inebriation. Napoleon somehow felt cheated, their initial kiss last night, so memorable to him. Illya had tripped, that much was true, tripped as they entered their hotel room and Napoleon caught him, pulled him upright and into his arms. Illya had not even hesitated--didn't he initiate the kiss? Or was his mouth merely open in surprise?

They did kiss though, a room spinning kiss, obliterating the sound of the door slamming shut behind them, Illya's arms surrounding him, pulling impatiently at his clothes. How could he not remember? It was almost insulting. And now Illya stared at him, shivering slightly and naked, awaiting the next move. Solo had won the first round of "Simon says." He wasn't sure how far he could push the rest. Unlike last night, or just a few moments ago, Illya was no longer hard. He looked young and confused, again almost irresistible. He'd make sure Illya remembered this time.

"Get into bed, Illya." Napoleon kept his tone detached, still leaning grandly against the dresser, lord of this domain. Simon says; Illya obeyed. But the intense blue eyes narrowed, no longer challenging and hardly welcoming. His arms crossed protectively over his chest, the vulnerability tinged with a slight measure of danger. Napoleon removed his jacket, slowly, languidly, sensually, eyes fixed on Illya's. He removed his shoulder holster, no need for explanations with this conquest. He approached the bed, undoing his onyx cuff links and set them on the nightstand. Illya backed up, almost cringing, struggling now to mask his discomfiture. Napoleon paused, unsure of the game he played. He had seen Illya's frightened eyes before, but not focused on his own. He had never before been the object of his friend's fear, even that one time when Illya had been drugged, the fear had been of a more general nature. The trust between them had fled, the passion of the night before, only his memory, not Illya's.

Napoleon sat on the bed and leaned down to remove his shoes, purposely slackening the pace. He swung his legs around and lay on his side, leaning on his elbow, his hand cradling his head. He could feel Illya trembling, not with arousal--maybe he was just cold--his eyes certainly were, cold and almost hostile. Napoleon placed a tentative palm on his partner's flat stomach and stroked him lightly, trying to urge calm and, at the same time, rekindle desire. "Relax, baby," he cooed. "We don't have to do this if you don't want to. But you want to, don't you?" Simon says you want to.


Did he say "no?" Napoleon could hardly register the refusal, it had been whispered so quietly. "Spread your legs for me." He was not ready to stop the game. Simon says. Illya's legs parted, .but he had obeyed again and Napoleon pressed on encouraged. He grasped Illya's cock lightly in one hand, stroking it, urging a response and feeling limp disappointment instead. Last night Illya had all but grabbed his hands, urging this contact, demanding it. "'Polya!" His beautiful mouth moist, swollen from kissing, semen dripping from its corners--he had sucked his 'Polya to an uncharacteristically quick completion--and then he wanted his turn. Napoleon felt schizophrenic. The 'Polya of the night before almost seemed to be another person or was it his friend who had changed?

"What's wrong, Illya?" he asked. "You said you've done this before."

"Yes. Last night." Again the words were whispered so softly, almost inaudible as a thought.

Napoleon smiled derisively. "Last night was not your first time." What game was he trying to play now?--he gave head like a French whore. Napoleon released his grip on Illya's reluctant cock and reached up to touch his blond hair instead. "Are you getting cold feet?" Illya glanced down at his feet, irritatingly literal. Napoleon shook his head at this new game. "Don't even pretend you are not familiar with the expression. That Russian immigrant bullshit hasn't worked since, perhaps, day two of our association." Napoleon pulled Illya's face toward his by the nape of his neck. He kissed him, almost chastely, and stared into troubled blue eyes. "Again," he said, "what is the matter?"


"Good then turn around and get on your knees." Simon says, and Simon knows the jig is up.

"You didn't do that last night." The words were almost choked out of him, and so quiet.

"No, I certainly didn't. You were a little too eager with this mouth." Napoleon pulled Illya's full lower lip slyly. "So do we need to play twenty questions or are we finally getting to the bottom," Napoleon paused, lowered his hand and cupped one of Illya's firm ass cheeks for emphasis, "the bottom of your unease." He meant to be threatening, deliberately pressing the issue with an insistent finger. Illya fidgeted, his eyes glazing in blank distress. "You are a virgin then. You are afraid—"

"No," Illya contradicted, "I am afraid, but I am not a virgin." His voice was only marginally louder, his face flushed with humiliation. He met Napoleon's eyes. "I am afraid because I am not a virgin."

Napoleon did not understand and then understood all at once. He reached up to encircle his partner in reassuring arms. Illya did not return the embrace, stiffened in wooden fury and Napoleon could feel the heat of his anger. "I'm sorry," he said, frowning. "I didn't mean to scare you. I didn't know. You poor—"

Illya pushed against his chest. "I am not your poor anything, Napoleon. You don't frighten me. Don't you have some East Side debutante to . . .aren't you getting engaged? Why do you involve me? Why?" Illya was breathing hard, sputtering his words, his eyes glittering with scorn. "Didn't you tell me you have a life? Or wanted to escape to a life?"

Napoleon grasped Illya's biceps. "Kiss me," he said. Simon says?--but he had grown tired of the game. "I won't leave you. I won't hurt you. I would never hurt you. I didn't hurt you last night."

"No, you didn't," Illya conceded. He returned the kiss. "And, no you won't." His eyes flashed with warning.

"I'd like to kill whoever hurt you," Napoleon said.

Illya shrugged. "It's okay."

"What do you mean, 'It's okay?' Of course, it's not okay."

Illya smiled. "No, it really is. They are already dead." Illya reconsidered. "Actually my French tutor ended up in a gulag. But he's probably dead now too and it's so far away and it's not pleasant in Siberia this time of year, off-season really. But I appreciate the sentiment." Illya's smile turned almost radiant as if fueled by sweet memories.

Napoleon regarded his friend, not entirely reassured by his statements. They sounded a little personally threatening. He relaxed his hold on his friend's biceps. "So, you've never enjoyed this type of sex?"


"Which 'yes'? You've never enjoyed it or you have?"

"Last night," Illya replied.

"But you said you don't remember last night."

Illya laughed, the sound low and throaty, almost mocking. "You're alive, my friend. It must have been wonderful."

Napoleon laughed in turn but checked his watch, suddenly eager to be far away from this conversation and far away from his partner's bed. "Illya, I have to go. I promised Anna. I'd really like you to come with me."

"All right."

Napoleon was stunned and only mildly suspicious of Illya's quick acquiescence. He almost leapt out of bed and busied himself with his cuff links. "Now you have to dress," he began.

"I can't go like this?" Illya blinked rapidly in sarcastic surprise. "Your fiancée's family must be so old fashioned. Stuffy."

Napoleon affixed his naked friend with a withering glare and strode purposely to the closet, knowing it would irritate his aggressively private partner as he opened the door. He was surprised to find it well-organized, but not as surprised by its contents, about as colorful as a film noir movie. Two identical black suits; a tuxedo; a gray silk suit; five white shirts in individual dry-cleaning bags; three identical black ties and a couple of striped ones in murky, muddy colors; a pair of black corduroy trousers; a few pairs of black dress slacks; two gray polo shirts and . . . "Perfect," he enthused, pulling an incongruous burgundy jacket from its hanger, almost bloody-looking amid the gray, black and white. He then selected a white shirt, one of the black ties and a pair of black trousers. "I've always wondered why you have this hideous red jacket. But it's Christmas," he concluded charitably. "I would suggest you restrict its wear to certain holidays. Today. Valentine's Day. Mayday."

Illya watched him, eyes narrowed with exasperation. "You are dressing me now?"

"No, you can dress yourself. I am merely suggesting." Napoleon threw the clothing at Illya and busied himself in the mirror, frowning with deep fondness at his appearance. He picked up a military brush on the dresser and arranged his shiny dark hair, absorbed in his reflection. So entranced by his good looks, it took him a moment or two to notice Illya standing beside him, impatiently holding his herringbone jacket and his shoulder holster. He allowed his friend to help him into both. "You look cute," he told Illya and pulled him into a playful embrace.

"You are too kind," Illya replied icily.

Napoleon pursed his lips. "By the way, we are insurance salesman."

Illya considered this as if tasting something unexpectedly tart. "I am an insurance salesman?" Illya rolled his expressive eyes heavenward and shrugged. "Inspired cover, Napoleon, brilliant." Illya shook his head. "You think a Russian—" Then Illya smiled, resigned. "Ah, life or term. I will bury you!" Illya's accent was comically thick. He removed one of his loafers and slapped it on the bureau for emphasis.

Napoleon laughed and pulled his friend again into an affectionate embrace. He reached down with both hands to cup the perfect ass. "Illya," he said, voice not quite commanding, but assured nevertheless.


They exchanged a brief kiss, hardly brushing lips before Illya turned in his arms. He ran his fingers, then the brush, then his fingers again, through his shaggy hair, arranging it in disorderly perfection. Napoleon watched their reflections framed in the dresser mirror and pressed himself meaningfully against his friend's gorgeous ass. Illya, he noted, was still preoccupied with his pretty blond hair. "I will have you someday, my friend," Napoleon said. "I'll make you forget or maybe I should say remember" His voice was low with promise and longing.

Still he moaned with delighted surprise when Illya met his eyes in the mirror and insinuated his delectable ass back against him, rubbing it against his rapidly burgeoning erection. He leaned forward to kiss the nape of Illya's neck, breathing in the intoxicating scent. "Oh, my 'Polya," Illya sighed. His hand dropped the brush and he grasped almost helplessly for the dresser for ...leverage as it turned out. He shoved back powerfully and Napoleon landed flat on his back for the second time this evening, his fall broken by the bed behind him. Illya leapt on top of him, pinning his arms above his head in a punishing grip, his knee pressed against his groin with promise and perhaps a bit of longing as well. Or perhaps not. Napoleon had no intention of finding out. But Illya immediately released his hold and backed up, smiling again with unabashed delight. "Shall we go, Napoleon?" he asked, his cold voice at odds with his cheerful expression. "Do remember, two can play this game."

Napoleon stood up and considered decking his merry partner. He wondered about his own reflexes, victim to almost the same lame trick as before. "If you do anything like that again, I cannot be responsible for the state of your teeth." He grabbed and caught Illya's arm easily, pulling him into a rough embrace. "You are perverse, my friend. You want this and fight this and . . ."

"I am perverse! Me! I am not the one who wants to . . ." but Illya could not bring himself to say 'fuck' twice in an evening. "You are the one who is about to get engaged, apropos of nothing, to chase an abstract, happily-ever-after dream. I am merely protecting myself or perhaps your hapless fiancée. Or perhaps you. Let us go."

Illya led the way down the stairs and into the unseasonably mild Christmas evening--Bing Crosby would have nothing to sing about in New York City this year. "Did you drive?" Illya asked and Napoleon shook his head. Illya shoved a couple of fingers in his mouth and whistled, the sound shrill on the quiet street. He waved down a cab, opened the door for Napoleon and almost shoved him inside. "Happy Christmas," he said. Napoleon, once again, reacted in slow dismay as the door slammed shut behind him. He looked up bewildered but Illya had already disappeared--down a manhole, up a drainpipe, into the wind--he just knew he was gone. Illya had explained to him once, Russians disappear.

Napoleon chuckled, amazed more by his own ineptitude than Illya's vanishing act. He recited Anna's parents' address to the cabbie and they discussed the weather for a few uninspiring blocks before falling into silence. Napoleon reached into his breast pocket and withdrew the square, light blue Tiffany box there, frowning at the crushed, poorly tied white bow. "I paid more for this ring than I did for my car," he thought irritably, "and they can't even tie a proper bow." He started to retie it and hesitated, pulling the bow open instead. He removed the lid and withdrew the velveteen box inside, snapping it open to admire the ring once again--a simple emerald cut diamond, one and a half carats, perfect really except . . .the box was empty. The cabbie turned around startled as Napoleon muttered, "That little son-of-a-bitch, Russian asshole."

"Is there something wrong, sir?"

Napoleon started to laugh, genuinely amused. He'd see his partner again on Monday, was less certain when the ring would reappear, and he found he didn't really care. He stared into the empty jewelry box again and felt comforted by the proof of at least one person's devotion inside of it.

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