When Napoleon slid noiselessly around the bend in the corridor, he hadn't expected to see himself in a mirror. Then he realized it couldn't be: his own head wasn't thrown back with eyes closed, his shirt and jacket weren't hanging open, his belt wasn't carelessly dangling half-unthreaded from its loops.
And his partner was not leaning hot against his exposed parts, hands busy inside Napoleon's loosened pants.
It wasn't him whispering hoarse endearments as he was worked by hands that didn't need to look at what they were doing, hands that wrapped and pulled and grasped, caressing in quick, hard movements even as Illya's mouth moved familiarly, heatedly, against his neck.
The quick, hot flush of shock ran through him and stopped him in his silent advance, leaving him gaping at the unexpected figures, unable for the moment to absorb more than the simple, primal movements taking place in front of him. A groan arose from one of the two, he couldn't tell from whom, and it triggered a wave of sympathetic arousal which he ignored until he could figure out what was going on. Besides the obvious.
Illya's back was to him, and the man he was making love to leaned in turn against the wall, allowing Napoleon to see his face clearly. There was blurred familiarity in the outline of the head tilted blindly up against the wall, and Napoleon's blooming embarrassment was swamped with a surge of mingled disbelief and anger and his brain started ticking over again.
That's why he'd thought it was a mirror. The head was dark, the chin broad and cleft, cheekbones a little higher and more prominent, and there was no mole. But otherwise, it was like looking into a photograph where the camera had jerked as the shutter snapped: he recognized himself as if through a filter. And as his gaze fell again on the other man leaning against the bad reproduction of himself, the anger leapt into unreasoning rage: Illya, his Illya, his stiff-necked, polite partner, was replying just as hoarsely, passion unmistakable in the broken syllables, as that bad imitation laid disrespectful, sacrilegious, pleasure-giving hands on Napoleon's friend and partner.
This was not what he'd expected when he'd followed Illya as he slipped out of the smoky main room three minutes ago. When Illya had risen casually from the small table in the jazz club after the waiter had brought him a drink and a note. Napoleon had seen his partner carelessly flick open the note and scan it, had watched Illya stiffen, read it more carefully, extend his hand without looking, capture his glass, and drain the contents. Had watched as the eyebrows arched over the suddenly sparking grey-blue eyes. Had seen the half-shudder shiver through his partner, a movement familiar to him from numerous torture sessions, made strange now by the odd smile and the slightly catlike motion of his shoulders, before he relaxed and sat back nonchalantly for a second, only to shrug and stand up, pushing his way between the crowded little tables. Napoleon had counted to ten slowly, then he stood up from his own little table hidden in the corner and had followed.
He'd been delayed a little in his wending pursuit: people littered the hallway, waiting for their turn at one of two loos at the end of a corridor, and he'd almost lost the slim silhouette as it threaded its way surely down the hallway and out the back door.
Napoleon had hung back then, aware that Illya would detect anyone following him this closely. By the time he emerged into the tiny cobbled courtyard, he'd lost sight of his partner.
The thin puddles of frozen water were no help; they lay between the stones and had apparently been disturbed by many people. There was nothing to indicate which of the three doors giving onto the courtyard Illya had chosen. They all stood ajar, hanging dispiritedly from their hinges.
Napoleon chose one at random, trusting to his luck, walking as softly as he could down the grimy passageway. There was no other sound, and occasionally his shoes crunched on something unidentifiable on the pavement. He stopped. If Illya had come this way, he would have heard this. This time his luck had let him down.
He made his way back out and stood irresolutely before the two doors. Might as well try the one on the right. The hinges groaned as he tried to draw it open and he let go immediately. Too noisy.
That left only the door on the left. He pulled at it and it swung open silently. Napoleon paused before entering and ran a finger over the hinges. Oiled; he'd have to remember that for future use—he should have checked them all for recent oiling, since he'd heard nothing to indicate which door Illya had taken. Right now it had cost him only time, whereas it could have cost him his life. Still could cost him his life.
This corridor was deserted, its paint under the single dim bulb showing forlornly tattered and dingy. Napoleon listened for his partner's footsteps, heard a faint scrabbling ahead, and followed, ghosting down the corridor, gun drawn now and held high.
He'd expected to find Illya in trouble, under threat. Instead, he'd found him engaged in mutual self-gratification with some bastard who let himself be felt up in hallways. So deeply involved that he wasn't aware of Napoleon's presence behind him, hidden in the shadows, fingers clutched white around the stock of his Special.
He had thought himself prepared for any eventuality, in the state of attentive readiness that could react to anything out of the ordinary with lightning reflexes—but this had caught him flat-footed.
Illya, of all people...
Why hadn't he known?
And who was his bad copy?
Napoleon faded back, placing his feet carefully, drawing on all his experience to move silently in the passageway, until he reached a spot where he could keep an eye on the passageway and an ear on the encounter still going on around the corner. Until he knew what was going on, he'd guard his partner's back. The way a partner should. He settled to watch, alert to sound or movement, unaware of the snarl on his face.
Two months ago...
Standing in the disco, watching Napoleon and the rest dance, Illya found himself engulfed by an enormous wave of longing for his days in Paris, where the courtship rituals were both more staid and more wild, where he'd discovered friendship—and love. Of several kinds.
As the disco beat pounded around him, he watched Napoleon gyrating in his suit, looking both impossibly young for the sophisticated agent Illya knew he was, and oddly out of place. The unrelenting beat was hypnotic and Illya felt his heart start to beat in the same pattern: LUB-lub-dub, LUB-lub-dub. He remembered the last time that had happened, posted an imaginary sentry against strangers approaching, and let the beat carry him back to a different time, a different wildness of music and bodies.
As he watched and drifted, Napoleon's features blurred, shifted under the flashing light and shadow. The driving beat changed to a more syncopated rhythm, the room became vast, echoing, with raw lights shining on a surging crowd of students dressed in outlandish costumes, and in the forefront of their dancing ranks, Illya saw Jean-Michel, his arm around Claude. They had paused in their dance and were both looking at him with that sultry challenge that had exploded into the most erotic exploration he'd ever experienced, at the last Bal des Etudiants before he'd graduated.
Three years ago...
He'd been free of any surveillance that evening, had planned for it for a long time, having arranged for his keeper to meet someone who would keep him occupied. Carrying his usual shabby knapsack, he'd ducked into one of the public men's rooms and quickly changed into his costume. The friar's robe would keep him warm and its hood would help disguise him in case he hadn't quite given all his watchers the slip.
He'd been working toward this moment ever since Claude had told him that the Bal des Beaux-Arts was still held. When he'd first heard that he would be sent on to the Sorbonne for his second doctorate, he had of course researched the school and the city, not quite daring to believe that he would be in the famous capital of learning and decadence. He'd held out very little hope of living like an actual student, having been kept on a very short leash in Cambridge.
But the leash was lax, here. He wasn't even living in the crammed common house, and the surveillance was minimal, as far as he could tell. As long as he didn't try too often, he could arrange brief periods where he was unwatched, unsupervised. Free to live like any other poor Parisian student.
"You mean the Ecole de Beaux-Arts still holds the Bal des Etudiants?" Illya asked.
"Of course!" Claude was shocked. "You mean you didn't know?"
Illya shrugged and kept on cutting up the carrots for the stew Claude was making on the hot plate.
"It was something I had read about. I never expected it to still happen."
"Well, then, you must go! You must come with us! All we have to do is get you a costume." Claude swept his carrot pieces into the pot and put three potatoes in front of him.
"Of course, you must come," Jean-Michel added from the depths of the shabby armchair he was studying in. "You will enjoy it."
"What kind of costume?" Illya asked. "Have you gone before?"
"Every year for three years," Jean-Michel answered promptly. "And it varies. Everyone goes in costume, the more outrageous the better. And the hangovers can be stupendous!"
"Do you remember when Anouilh came as an artist's model?" Claude's smile was wicked.
"Oh, yes!" Jean-Michel threw his book aside. "That was a Bal to look back on." He let his head fall back in reverie and licked his lips.
"What was so special about an artist's model?" Illya asked. He gave up the potatoes and accepted the handful of green beans to pick and snap.
Both Claude and Jean-Michel laughed out loud.
"It was the scandal of the hour," Claude started.
"There's always a scandal of the hour," Jean-Michel butted in.
Illya looked from one to the other, smiling. The give and take surrounded him with comfortable familiarity. They had taken to spending time with each other in the evenings, even after going out with other students, gravitating back to Claude's or Illya's little rooms, which were in the same pension, two floors apart. Less often, they would go to Jean-Michel's flat, which was not as private since he shared it with two other roommates.
"And this scandal was—?" he asked.
"Two of the professeurs were competing for the same model for the drawing from life class. Anouilh had declared that she was sick of them both."
"Bon Dieu, she was beautiful, though," Jean-Michel sighed.
"Yes, she was," Claude agreed. "Anyway, she had taken up with a third professeur and on the evening of the Bal, she showed up dressed only in paint. It was fantastical! You couldn't tell until she moved her legs apart that she was nude. And of course by the end of the evening, she was all smeared."
"Many people had a hand in that." Jean-Michel grinned like a wolf, and Claude chuckled.
"But there's always something like that going on," she added. "The Bal is famous. Who will you come as?"
"I should not go at all," Illya pointed out.
"Party pooper! You'll never get to go again, unless they do this in Russia."
"But they do not do this in Russia."
"So you should go now. Illya," Claude dimpled and blinked her eyelashes at him, "you know you want to, and we are going, so you should go. Then you can carry the memory back to Russia with you when you have your degree."
"Flirting with me will get you nothing," Illya said, "except a handful of green beans." He passed the handful over and she trapped his hand in hers.
"But it's something you should do. Please?" This time the look was a request, without the outrageous flirting, and Illya weakened, tempted beyond belief.
"I should not..." he began.
"Then you will! Chouette!" She clapped her hands, causing an explosion of green beans. "Merde! You'd think I'd remember I was holding on to something!"
"...but I will need a costume that conceals, not reveals."
"Well, Russia is famous for its monks. Why don't you just come as Rasputin?" Jean-Michel asked.
"A little too noticeable. But who sees the wandering friar?"
And easily as that, the Bal and its consequences were set into motion.
The friar's robe was easily come by, but Claude nearly drove them to distraction until she made a choice. Then she'd become silent, and she and Jean-Michel would exchange glances fraught with mischief when Illya asked what they would wear. He stopped asking after two tries, although he tried to find out indirectly, checking her room for clues when he came upstairs to visit, but finding nothing.
Sometimes he would feel their eyes on him and, looking up, would surprise another look under the teasing fun. Something more speculative, which would vanish when they saw he was looking.
So now he was moving toward the huge salon where it was taking place, the noise already at an enormous level. He didn't know where he was going to meet them. Claude had simply said, "We'll find you. Don't worry," and he'd been forced to leave it at that.
People in odd and wonderful costumes were flowing past him and he quickened his step, starting to be caught up in the noise and confusion, the hubbub of voices. There was a feeling of wildness in the air. A group of gypsies wandered past, bare feet slapping the ground, the girls laughing unrestrainedly and shaking their pale bare shoulders, offering to read fortunes for silver across their palms.
Illya sniffed; someone was smoking the dreadful little clove cigarettes somewhere nearby. Then it was swirled away, lost as a courtesan and her courtier tripped by him. He was swept up in a crowd hurrying from behind and carried off his feet through the door, then set down in an eddy as the tide of people washed away again.
Inside, the salle was enormous, decorations strung like jungle vines, music blaring at tremendous volume. He saw a Tarzan and Jane shimmy past him, shoulders moving in rhythm, heads close together, then they were swallowed up in the throng of dancers.
"Hallo, who are you? Can't have anyone hiding out here, can we?" A hand snatched at Illya's hood, pulling it down, and he whipped round, eyes wide, ready for combat, only to find a drunken musketeer grinning foolishly at him.
"Ohé, monsieur le moine! Bless us, Brother, for we are sinning against everything tonight!" The musketeer fell to his knees. Illya bemusedly made the sign of cross over the musketeer's lolling head, and the drunken man seized his hand and kissed it. "Long life to you, Brother!"
No sooner had the musketeer pushed himself to his feet and staggered off than another costumed fool presented himself. Illya signed until his arm was tired, then he pulled his hood back up and said, "Go and sin no more, my children!" His audience took this with a roar of laughter and dispersed.
When his arm was seized yet again, he rolled his eyes and turned disgustedly around, only to stop dead in his tracks. Claude had her hand out, just touching him—but a transformed Claude, dressed in sleek black velvet that was cut out here and there so that it suggested a jungle cat in harness, her feet in the highest of black heels, and a leash around her neck. The leash was held by Jean-Michel, but an unfamiliar Jean-Michel: he was clad only in a dun-colored loincloth, his body daubed with ochre and yellow paint, dark hair, stiff with yellow paint, flaring like a mane around his head. Around his neck, a leash, held by Claude.
They stared at Illya like predators, and he stared back, aware of the island of quiet that surrounded them in the middle of chaos. His heart slammed within him, and his blood hummed under its propulsion, making his extremities tingle, but he kept his eyes fixed on theirs, absurdly convinced that if he looked away, he was doomed.
Moving with exquisite slowness, Claude gathered both leashes into her hand and then took Jean-Michel's hand and placed his on hers.
Then she extended their joined hands to Illya, offering him the leashes that were now strained tight upon their necks.
The battering of his heart made his hands shake where they were clenched in the robe's front pocket. Don't take them, and suffer embarrassment that would probably ruin their friendship. This was too intense to be turned off later as a joke.
Take the thin pieces of leather, and become part of—what? Part of something. He couldn't conceive of either of them wanting to hurt him, and they were too bright to not have thought this out.
And they were his friends.
He reached out and took the leashes.
The bubble burst, the silence around them collapsing as if it had never been. Claude and Jean-Michel pulled him into their embrace, and the three of them danced together to the insane volume of music, drank together, and went home together in the wee hours of the morning.
In the years following, Illya could never remember the details of the rest of that first night clearly. He wondered if excitement had blurred his perception at the time or if it was the rough red wine Claude favored and that they all drank too much of.
He remembered odd snatches of vision caught in lamplight and moonlight, patterns of heat and cold across his body, fingers and lips in old and new places. Remembered with utmost clarity the first time he ran his hands over Jean-Michel's body and felt the large hands running over his at the same time.
There were blank spots, jumps in the memory track. He remembered Claude standing with one piece of her cat harness left on, trying to tug off the stubborn high heel without breaking a toe, and he'd knelt and kissed her foot, leaving a trail of moist sloppy kisses up her ankle and leg. Then somehow she was in his lap, claiming his mouth with her own, and Jean-Michel was running a finger around Illya's nipples.
He did remember very clearly the passionate heat that flared and burned all that night. Still remembered the incredible eroticism of Claude's touches on Jean-Michel's body, his own tentative attempts at emulation, their willingness to play tutor. Remembered the quiet times when holding and kissing was everything, and silky, luscious words were whispered, though he'd forgotten what they were. He only remembered that they were gentle words of love and affection, and they'd roused a hunger in him for more.
And he remembered with profound impact the last exchange between him and them, as they lay on the bedding spread on the floor, Claude massaging Jean-Michel's cock with the fingers of one hand and her lips, her other hand busy between her legs, while Jean-Michel suckled Illya's cock with powerful and well-regulated suction.
"We have to finish," Illya had gasped. "I must go home—ho—oh—" It was lost in the throes of an orgasm that had ripped itself out of his balls and his spine and he'd toppled, caught by Jean-Michel's arm and eased down to the warm woollen floor.
"Don't worry about going home," Jean-Michel had said. "You are home. We love you."
Claude had raised her head, hands still occupied. "We do love you, Illya. You don't have to worry about where you are. You will always be home with us." She reapplied herself to her task, running her lips around the cockhead, and Jean-Michel roared and bucked under her, slipping out of her mouth, even as her other hand spasmed between her thighs and she went rigid.
Jean-Michel roared again, his hand flying down to his abandoned cock. He pumped twice, hard, and his entire body arched, pulsing in terrific bursts, then relaxed all at once.
As one, Illya and Claude both struggled up on one elbow and looked down. Jean-Michel sprawled between them, deflated cock swimming in a skin-locked sea of semen, unconscious.
"Jouir, c'est mourir un peu. We can wash tomorrow," Claude chuckled sleepily and pulled the sheet up over them all, already tucking herself back down, curling herself into a ball against Jean-Michel's side.
Illya let himself fall back onto the pillow, boneless with fatigue. He could hear Claude snuffle a little as she slipped into sleep. Exhausted, exalted, he lay on his back, listening to the slow deep breaths coming from his companions.
He had never known this kind of oneness. Never known a sexual hunger could contain such tenderness. Never known it could be more than one-on-one, more than man/woman. More than what he had been taught in a dozen quick encounters and one girlfriend.
His mind played with enlightenment and theories, jumbling them, combining them, until they all merged in a whirl of background noise, spiraling down into a contented slumber.
He'd crept out before dawn the next morning, returning to his room two floors below. If his watcher noticed, it had never been mentioned.
Two months ago...
The disco beat intruded on the memories, and Claude and Jean-Michel's images withdrew into the background of his thoughts as he stared at Napoleon dancing. Illya felt an ache of loneliness and a desperate want, fueled by his memories. Any of them...
One year ago...
It was ridiculous. He was here, in the fabled Land of Golden Opportunities, where oranges grew on every corner, the streets were paved in gold, and everyone was a movie star—and he was filling out paperwork.
His guide—no, his new partner—saw the small shrug and laughed. "There's always paperwork; you just have to know how to deal with it. Give me that—" Illya looked up, startled, and saw that Napoleon was holding out his hand.
"I am capable of doing my own paperwork," Illya said matter-of-factly.
"I'm sure you are, tovarisch, but if you do it at that rate, we'll never get to dinner before our stakeout."
Tovarisch? Raising his eyebrows at the unwonted familiarity, Illya handed him the papers and his pen. Napoleon laid them on the desk and paged quickly through them, then dashed off a note on the top one, tapped them till they settled in a flat sheaf, and gestured to Illya to put on his jacket.
As they stepped through the sliding door, Illya saw a flirtatious smile appear on Napoleon's lips and was amused at the transformation. The chocolate eyes crinkled at the edges and the dark eyebrows moved in an appreciative arc. "Mitzi," Napoleon drawled and Illya laughed to himself; the very tone of Napoleon's voice had changed, become velvet and silk. "Would you please help us out?"
"What do you want, Napoleon?" The secretary's voice was just as flirtatious, silken, teasing. Illya cast her a sidelong look; she sounded like she'd be fun. Mitzi caught it and arched an eyebrow back at him. Illya smiled slightly, then straightened his face as Napoleon looked at him.
As he trailed Napoleon through the building, Illya also catalogued the secretaries and support staff he was introduced to. It was interesting to note that almost all the women reacted with the same flirtatious interest to Napoleon. After the sixth or seventh introduction, Illya started listening to the tone of what Napoleon was saying rather than the words, and he was startled to hear, quite clearly, a subtle declaration of interest postponed only by cruel circumstance.
As the tenth secretary sighed a little over Napoleon's unwillingness to name a night, Illya looked at him covertly. When Napoleon made an actual date with the thirteenth, Illya realized that he was seeing a protective mechanism: his new partner could apparently no more not flirt than not breathe, but he'd perfected this routine to manage it. Sensible for a spy. No connections that couldn't be easily broken, nothing that would disturb his peace of mind on a mission, and everything to do with relief and relaxation.
A sensible thing to do. So on the sixteenth introduction, when the secretary showed unmistakable signs of interest, Illya decided to take her up on it.
"Well, Napoleon, what can you do about it?" Cynthia asked.
Napoleon said, "Thursday would provide an excellent opportunity."
"Thursday is very late, Napoleon, almost a whole week," she complained.
"That's true, Napoleon," Illya said. "You are making a lady wait a long time for the pleasure of your company."
"He is, isn't he?" Cynthia tossed Illya an arch look even as Napoleon said, "But it's the first day off I'll have after the next affair."
"But I am not bound by that, since Waverly is not yet sending me out on any affairs," Illya observed innocently. "I could offer myself in Napoleon's place if you would like to do something tonight. I would just need a little help selecting a place to eat." He looked at Cynthia apologetically. "I am not yet familiar with the area."
"Well, of course you don't. There's a really good Hungarian place near here! We could walk there!" Cynthia was bubbling.
"Of course. Shall we go from here? The weather is cool but should be enjoyable."
"I'd love to."
"How about next Thursday for me then, Cynthia?" Napoleon put in, trying to get back his lost momentum.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon, that's too far away for me to plan. As a matter of fact, I should show Mr. Kuryakin—"
"Illya, please." Illya gave her a small smile. This was too easy.
"—I should show Illya some of our map room resources."
"Well, I can do that, I'm giving him the grand tour anyway." Illya could tell that Napoleon was still grasping at straws.
"Nonsense, you're busy. I can show Illya anything he needs to know." She rose and started talking exclusively to the Russian agent.
"Our map room is a great convenience and resource. The library...."
Napoleon watched them go, aware that he'd been out-manoeuvred by his new partner, not quite sure whether to be piqued or amused. He watched Illya and Cynthia walk down the hallway, trying to decide, appreciating the back views. The pencil skirt was a wonderful invention, showcasing an exceptional pair of legs, but he'd bet that there was strength and elegance in the compact body under Illya's black suit.
Even though one of his first acts should be to get Illya into a department store and find him a decent suit. He narrowed his eyes, estimating the size, picturing Illya in a better-tailored, well-pressed black suit, which would hang well from the strong shoulders, covering the narrow hips and powerful thighs.
"Briefs or boxers?" he wondered briefly, then roused with a start from his daydreaming. He checked the corridor before standing up from where he was still leaning on Cynthia's desk and discreetly adjusting himself.
That pencil skirt with the single black seam leading down to the high heels. Very enticing.
He resolutely put out of his mind the niggling thought that he hadn't started to get hard until he'd thought of the body under Kuryakin's clothes. It recurred to him briefly over the next week as he became accustomed to his partner's presence, as they sparred together, ate together, went on Illya's first affair. It lingered and was shoved into the back of his brain with a legion of other bits of information he had nothing to do with.
The corridor was long and branched weirdly, stone flags leading up and down off the main corridor and the side avenues became hazy after a few steps, but he wasn't looking, couldn't look. He was too intent on following that voice. He knew that voice, heard it beside him daily, but had never heard it like this. Had never heard it low, roughened, husky, speaking his name, over and over, slowly, lazily. Napoleon felt his insides blaze up with unexpected heat at each low-toned call, and he had to find the voice. There was danger behind it and around it, danger that had him closing his hand tight on the stock of the Walther.
He followed the corridor, listening to that voice, that usually clipped and controlled voice drawling his name, slower, lower, whispering it in broken syllables over the little moans and gasps, deepened breathing echoing along the dark hall, echoing inside Napoleon, shaking him to his core while he felt the muscles of his abdomen tighten in responsive want and need. Not pain, no pain, just heat and desire. He recognized the stress and yearning in those sighing breaths that were being drawn faster now, the urgent muttering that came faster now, now, now, do it.
Napoleon ran faster and faster along the corridor as the familiar voice called his name in a high, clarion summons and evocation, a glorious blurt of sound as Napoleon burst out of the corridor, catching his foot on the lintel, tripping over it into -
Napoleon blinked , stunned at the sudden sprawling fall that had ended up with him face down in his bed, hand half-under the pillow, fingers curled round the butt of his gun. He was aware of the soft cotton of the pillow against his cheek, felt his stubble drag on it as he turned his head, looking around the dark, familiar shapes. His room. It was his bed, in his room. And there was no dark, lazy voice calling him. Just silence, broken only by the quick muted tick of the alarm clock.
He shifted and pleasure shivered through the length of him, wavering like wandering lightning from his cock, crushed against the mattress, through the ends of his limbs. He was close, so close, he realized, the gripping tingle drawing him back into the urgency of his dream. He slipped his hand blindly under his body, sliding under the waistband of his pyjamas, down and in, and he held himself hard, the warm skin of his palm surrounding the hot, hard velvet that throbbed against the bones of his hand. He rolled over onto his back, eyes closed, gripping himself strongly, his hand starting to move in short, powerful jerks, thumb scarcely needing to travel round the crown.
He heard an echo of the voice calling his name, and the remembered sound dried his mouth as he gasped, sent its lure traveling down his spine in a rush of heat, surging, gathering force as it rolled through his body, drawing every muscle tense behind it, pushing it onward, and it crested in an awesome explosion through his own tight grasp, smaller waves sending powerful spasms down his arms and legs in backwash, head thrown back so far into the pillow he could feel the cotton on his eyelids, hand still clenched tight, tight, tight, as though it could hold on to that faint echo, draw it back through sheer strength, before his grip fell open, exhausted, feeling the blood pulsing through his fingers, slowing into an echo of its spiraling urgency...
He breathed out a sigh of replete exhaustion, falling into lassitude, tumbling quickly into slumber, hearing somewhere a voice calling his name softly, so far away, so sadly he nearly awoke again, then sleep claimed him.
The plane ride had been atrocious and the ride from the airport even more so, the bus taking a long time to groan its way into the city. Alighting from it, making his way over to the mtro entrance, Illya took a deep, satisfying breath of an air that held memory and promise. Now he made his slow way down the familiar little streets, one hand deep in his pocket, the other holding the umbrella against the cold winter drizzle. He'd left his luggage in the little pension he remembered from long ago; there had been a deep satisfaction when he had stepped off the bus and found its known worn door still facing stolidly out onto the street, the discreet hand-lettered sign, "Chambres à louer", still tucked into the corner of a panel, shielded by a sheet of plastic now.
When he had entered, the tiny lady with the broom had looked up and gasped, "Monsieur Kuryakin! Bon dieu d'un bon dieu—!" and he had found his hands captured in hers, as she stammered welcome. "Bon soir, Mme. Kolly," he said, finally able to break into her breathless spate. "Do you still have a room for me?" His voice lilted up and she smiled, accepting his teasing.
"Bien sûr! Of course! Even if I had to move someone else—!" She struck a dramatic pose with the broom, as if sweeping some unlucky tenant out, and Illya joined in the soft laughter that broke from her.
"You should have let me know—I would have been able to give you your old room back. How long can you stay this time? Are you still being subsidized by the company that sent you for your doctorate? A single, and the bathroom is still down the hall—it's the little one on the 5th floor, you remember—the window still sticks but if you stand on the chair you can see the tops of the monuments. You'll need to pay a week in advance—15 francs a day or 85 for the week—and if you stay after that, eh bien, on s'arrangera —"
She stood back from him and her eyes narrowed. "But you are not a student any more, you work for a real company. Life must be treating you very well. Maybe I will charge you the full amount." At Illya's surprised look, she explained readily enough. "You have a real suitcase now, not the cardboard thing you had before. Your shoes show signs of wear but aren't ruined. And your clothes are first-hand, not second."
Illya swallowed the laugh that welled up strongly from within. The concierge had married many of the quintessential traits of all good French hotelkeepers—sharp with money, and a terror when the rent was due, able to unerringly nose out deadbeats—to an otherwise grandmotherly disposition and a true Gallic faith that things would fall into line somehow. "On s'arrangera..." Anything could be managed somehow. She never gave loans or advanced credit, even to the most impecunious of her boarders, but her practical advice on where to shop and what to buy to keep oneself fed and clothed on very little had helped numerous students keep body and soul together during the long school year on what was left over after her rent was paid.
Mme. Kolly—Illya never discovered whether there had ever been a Monsieur Kolly—had taken him under her wing after he had repaired a shutter's hinges for her and they had arranged a barter system whereby Illya would fix something mechanical and she would rebate a small part of the rent. It had helped stretch his budget, but he had conceived a true fondness for the bantam-weight landlady, with her good humor and fierce grasp of finances.
He would report good bargains he had found in the market to her, and she would invite him to take coffee with her in the late morning, when she would have finished cleaning and shopping, in what he still thought of as elevenses. It was all very correct: the coffee was in a formal coffee service, a little battered, but old, that she had inherited from her mother. There was always some kind of cake, of which they each would have a thin slice, and one cup of coffee, strong enough to dissolve the spoon, sugared. A formal ritual, and one that had created a background order in his days, when it sometimes furnished breakfast and lunch as he struggled to finish his chores and his work before running to his classes.
Now he wrangled with her out of old habit, protesting the amount, not succeeding in knocking it down by so much as a centime, signed the register, and stepped lightly up the stairs, soon finding himself on the landing facing the well-used door that had "50" painted on it. He took a deep breath, inserted the heavy key, gave it a turn, and entered the small, familiar room on the 5th floor.
He set down his suitcase, seeing the familiar dresser, and ran his hand over it, feeling the dents and initials and scratches he had known under the coat of paint. This had been Claude's room and he and she and Jean-Michel had spent many evenings crammed in it with as many other students as could find place to sit or stand, arguing philosophy and politics, as all students did, lost in a cloud of stinging cigarette smoke, studying in groups, drinking the acrid red wine that was cheap and plentiful. The spark and flare of clever, sometimes brilliant minds had been a very attractive light.
He sat down on the narrow bed, staring blindly at the shuttered windows, hearing the hubbub of argument as though they were all there now, fifteen or twenty of them packed in, with not a sou among them to go to the cafés where it was warm and they could lean in over their drinks and their coffees, to expound and expatiate until the cock crowed.
And there had been the other times, the times when it was just she and Jean-Michel and him, talking late into the night after the others had left to go back to their own studies or women or families. Playing with theories and beliefs, dissecting the universe. Times when they had huddled together for warmth, arguing hard enough to create plumes of steam in the freezing room, cocooned in their blankets and extra clothes. Times when the huddling had turned into lovemaking, warm under the blankets, the soft worn cotton and hot satiny skin wrapping around intertwined limbs, cold hands diving for warm crevices, bringing a sudden surprise to urgent moments, with moonlight stuttering through the closed shutters, picking out odd features from the darkness...
Claude's eyes, sparkling in breathless playfulness, the strong knuckles of Jean-Michel's hand surrounding the rosy cap of Illya's cock, his other hand disappearing into the dark near Claude's legs... Claude's tongue, her glorious, talented tongue, flicking over her teeth before her mouth disappeared into shadow as she leaned forward and nuzzled Jean-Michel's neck, her shoulder rubbing against Illya's as he did the same.
The curve of Jean-Michel's jaw as he threw his head back, sucking in a breath as they both kissed and nipped at the strong muscles cording under their efforts, feeling the friction of arm against arm, soft wiry woman against hard male chests, flat nipple sliding across flat nipple, kissing, touching, the three of them working at each other until they were all gasping in violent explosion, moonlight picking out an open mouth, a shuddering ribcage, a hand clenched tight on the blanket.
Then they would subside in sweaty, satisfied exhaustion, the moonlight sliding over the now featureless cotton landscape, three bodies curled like puppies together under its shelter, rearranging themselves drowsily before sliding into deeper slumber...
For that year, they had been closer than brother and sister to him. Between Mme. Kolly and Claude and Jean-Michel, the pension and his studies, he had had an unexpected family and a home. And he had had to leave with no warning, with no forwarding address, starting another new life, leaving their closeness behind. He didn't even know where they were now...
He started, finally aware that he'd been staring like a dummy, automatically checking the time from the shadows through the shutters. Not very long, ten minutes; maybe twenty. Illya rose, flipped his suitcase onto the bed, and put its contents neatly away into the dresser, then slipped the case under the bed. There was nothing other than clothes. Nothing to betray his connection with U.N.C.L.E. Everything that could do that was already secreted on his person. As he looked over the tiny room, Illya finally acknowledged what he was going to do, what he had intended to do from the start, what had drawn him back over the Atlantic after the disappointment and grinding unhappiness of his partnership with Napoleon.
It was time to track down his friends. He should never have left them in the first place.
As he walked down the stairs, he turned over the questions he could ask Mme. Kolly without seeming to be searching for just two people...
Napoleon emerged from the shabby door two numbers down from the building Illya had entered. He'd thought of waiting in the lee of a shop, but after Illya had been inside for half an hour he took another look at the door he had entered, and an alternate plan had occurred to him. Several of the doors on this street boasted the same discreet offer of rooms.
He chose the closest one, and asked for a room that overlooked the street, haggling just enough to not raise suspicion. Then he hailed a taxi, going to the train station and picking up his suitcase from the consigne. He took the opportunity to change some more money and buy some supplies from the kiosks, then took a second taxi, returned to the little pension, and settled himself to wait for his partner to enter or leave.
He seated himself in the single small armchair, wincing a little as it pinched through its worn covering, evaluating his surroundings with a practiced eye, then dismissed them as irrelevant. Sitting against the shutters with the lights out, he was able to see the front doors of most of the street, including the pension where his friend was.
He crossed his legs, brushed an imaginary speck of dust from his trousers, straightened the crease, and finally let himself wonder why he'd come.
Two months ago...
When Illya had told him off-handedly that he was needed in Paris for specialty consultation, Napoleon had acknowledged it equally casually. They were often consulted for their specialized knowledge, and he knew that Illya had a soft spot for the city he had taken his second advanced degree in.
He had noticed that Illya had been distracted recently, and Napoleon thought the Paris visit might relieve that distraction, get him back on track and concentrating again. They had too many affairs coming up that would need their full attention.
Illya had seemed pleased by the prospect, enough that Napoleon had felt a little left out as he watched his partner turn slowly from a grouchy Russian into someone who could be surprised smiling to himself. He seemed to be counting the days till he left.
Then Mitzi inadvertently spilled the beans.
"Well, Napoleon," she said in that seriously flirtatious manner. "Whatever are you going to do when your partner stays in the city of love? It's hard enough to coordinate affairs when you're both in one office—it will be impossible when you're separated by an ocean."
"What?" Napoleon stared at her from his perch on the edge of her desk. "Separated?" This made no sense.
"Of course, we do it whenever you have to work with other offices anyway, but having you both here makes it easier."
"Well, you know," he gave her a soulful look. "Whatever we can do to make your life easier..."
Mitzi laughed. "Well, it's only if he follows through and makes the temporary request a permanent one. Heather's betting against it, but Saundra thinks he might do it after all."
"And where do you stand on it, Mitzi, my love?" Napoleon gave her one of his most melting glances, but she just raised her hand and said, "Don't try it, Napoleon. I never tell where I've put my money and I don't tell tales out of bed."
"You know I've been trying to get you to tell tales in it, don't you?" he murmured, then straightened. "Wait. What do you mean, tell tales out of bed? Has Illya—?"
He received his answer as she colored, then her eyes fell and she frowned fiercely. When she spoke, her voice was stiff with consternation. "Don't you dare say anything, Napoleon Solo! That is my business, and none of your own! Pry into it, and you can do your own paperwork for the rest of your life!"
Illya had been dating Mitzi? Sleeping with Mitzi? Why hadn't Napoleon known? Unbidden, a picture of his cool Russian with the vivacious woman formed in his mind, then he hastily clamped down on that thought as he realized he was visualizing Illya more than modesty warranted, exerting himself instead to soothe his secretary's ruffled demeanor.
"You're absolutely right, it's none of my business. You know us spies, we just have to put two and two together—" Napoleon broke off hastily as she shot him a furious glance "—slip of the tongue, I'm sorry. You know we have to pick up on everything. It's a matter of survival."
It took several minutes to placate her, and she sat rigidly at her desk as he left, still angry at herself.
He retreated to his office, alarmed now. Illya had put in for a temporary transfer? He'd felt that a distance had opened between them recently, but he'd thought that they were good enough friends to be able to discuss it. Why hadn't Illya brought it up?
And yet when Illya came into his office with a question later that afternoon, he couldn't bring himself to ask. Instead, he looked over at the partner he spent most of his time with on the job, was trying to lure out more often after the job because he enjoyed his company, the dry humor, even the sarcastic jabs, and couldn't bring himself to ask whether he'd actually put in for a transfer.
Illya had sat on the edge of his desk for a moment, scribbling a note to himself as Napoleon answered his question, then had asked another one, his pen moving idly as Napoleon explained. Napoleon saw that Illya had doodled.
The doodle looked suspiciously like a heart before Illya just as idly scratched it out, folded the paper and stuck it in his pocket. After he left, Napoleon sat for a while. He'd been trying to figure out how to tease Illya into telling him about his temporary request; the heart had torpedoed his plans. He'd answered Illya's question on reflex, and hoped it had made sense, while he wrestled with an uncomfortable truth.
He was afraid to ask Illya about why he was going to Paris.
Every instinct Napoleon had was screaming at him that something serious was going on. Nothing concrete. Just feelings about the moodiness he'd picked up: Illya's distraction, his anticipation, Mitzi's embarrassment. And now the heart.
He had no idea why the heart had clinched it, except that Illya was not given to doodling. Especially not doodling something out of grade school.
He had to find out. And he couldn't let his partner know.
Napoleon started making arrangements to visit Paris. A private trip.
A light on the 5th floor flickered more brightly for a moment as a silhouette moved across the closed shutters, then the light went out. He knew it was unreasonable, but he was convinced that it was Illya who had just turned the light out, and was now lying in the dark.
He rose stiffly and prepared for bed, resigned to the bathroom and shower down the hall. He set his travel alarm for 6 a.m. Illya was here on personal business; there was no way his partner was going to get up early voluntarily. Napoleon would have plenty of time to prepare.
And of course, the next morning, it was raining. He could see no movement or light in the room he'd marked as his partner's, but realized that he might have very little warning if Illya emerged while Napoleon was still in his own room, so he made a quick breakfast from his cache, and went downstairs, waiting in the little lobby area as if for a friend, keeping an eye on the street, grateful he'd at least remembered the little folding umbrella.
He hated being rained on. So of course it was raining.
Water was his downfall, whether it came from above or below or was gathered in a pool. Napoleon sighed to himself and shifted from one foot to the other, realizing he'd have to leave or risk being noticeable, loitering in what was growing to be a steady drizzle.
He hoped Illya would come out soon. Even as he formed the wish, his partner stepped out of the door across the street, umbrella up, long tan coat buttoned and tied, and took a deep open-mouthed breath. He saw Illya tilt his head back, looking up at the grey clouds, and a wonderful smile spread across his face. It dazzled and shocked Napoleon with its open tenderness, an emotion he'd never seen on his thoughtful partner's face. Then Illya started walking at a slow pace down the street toward the main thoroughfare.
Napoleon gave him a 50-yard head start and started following him.
It was raining.
As Illya left the pension's steps, he breathed deeply, mouth open, drawing in the cold damp air that was mixed with exhaust, the sharp tang of winter greenery, the souvlakis being sold from the little window down the street. This was also part of his memories: somehow rain, even these hard stinging cold rains of Paris winters, was interwoven in all the complex sense memories he had carried away from this city. The soft pattering that had chased him to class, the downpour slashing against the windows in the bus before the mad dash for the metro steps, the far more gentle mist that hung over the water the first morning he had sat on a bench near Notre Dame and had watched the sun come up over the Seine after a rowdy student party.
He smiled to himself as he walked along the bank now, a little older, feeling the remembered heat and wildness discovered during those nights, now controlled and channeled into more dangerous pursuits. He wondered idly what Napoleon would have made of his stoic, staid Russian if said Napoleon had been able to be a fly on the wall during some of his university days, then he grimaced. That part of his life belonged to nobody but himself. What was on paper could pass as truth. What was in his heart lay as its own verity. What was in his memory...
Illya smiled to himself.
Napoleon, loitering in the window at Brentano's, saw the smile and a shiver of shock curled through his chest. That couldn't be his partner; Illya never looked that...relaxed. Not when coupled with a smile of such serene lasciviousness that it would have raised the horns on a satyr.
Napoleon saw the smile return again and again during the day, as Illya wandered over what seemed like a great deal of Paris. Napoleon couldn't for the life of him tell whether his partner was indeed sauntering aimlessly or whether his ambling had any point to it.
From time to time Illya would stop and look at some doorway, a yard barred from the casual view, or the river, but drew close to none of the famous landmarks. He walked, keeping a decent pace in the light drizzle, just purposefully enough to seem to have a goal, but Napoleon hadn't seen him interrupt his wandering for more than the time necessary to wait for a light. Even a little past noon, Illya simply stopped into one of the many bistros with a stand-up counter and had a quick bite to eat, leaving again ten minutes later to resume his desultory travels.
Napoleon would have been far more uncomfortable if he hadn't finally commandeered a series of taxicabs, telling each he was waiting for a friend, loitering till he saw where Illya was headed next, then passing him in the cab and alighting a block or two ahead of him. The method worked well enough, even if it did convince a number of taxi drivers that Americans were all crazy.
He usually had enough warning of a change of direction that he could direct the cab to catch up and pass his friend. It kept him out of Illya's view, and it sheltered him from the light rain and the cold. He wondered idly how Illya could put up with it, then shook his head. Illya could put up with anything that didn't actively kill him, and he seemed to be letting memories guide him now; a little damp, chilly weather wouldn't bother him.
Once as he alighted, he saw Illya stop and bend down, lowering one hand, then rise again and put his hand back in his pocket. Napoleon craned to see, but all he caught sight of was a striped behind under a ragged brown tail vanishing with dignity around the corner.
Illya? petting a street cat? He stood for a while, trying to figure it out, and had to hurry to catch up when he realized Illya was nearly lost to sight.
Illya rubbed his fingers together, shedding the brindled hairs. The cat had at first thrown him a venomous glance, then had suffered a single pat before stalking off. Cats and poets, two things Paris was full of—and they had been indirectly responsible for setting in motion the events that had brought him back here.
Three years ago...
"Excusez-moi, mademoiselle." He'd found a place to sit, finally, in the big student commons. He had only a half-hour for lunch and had forgotten to buy anything from the little street market two streets over from his pension. He'd make do with the unidentifiable ragoût that was the cheapest thing the cafeteria had to offer and not be so careless again. "Y-a-t-il une place de libre?" Pointing at the chair, he juggled his tray and its contents.
"Ben, oui." A face with short bangs over little glasses turned up and nodded. When the girl turned back, Illya saw the long black hair sweep over her shoulder.
"Merci." He put the tray down carefully but his book slipped off and crashed onto the small table space left uncovered between them.
She caught it before it could slide into her own tray, looked at the title, and glanced back up at him. "Pierre Emmanuel. Not many people read him anymore."
"It's for a class." That got him a dry look.
"Either that, or you are the world's most obscure literary critic."
Illya felt his eyebrows climb. "I didn't think he was that unknown."
Her head shook and she flashed a little grin. "He is."
"Have you taken the class already?" Illya dug in. He only had fifteen minutes left; he'd have to eat and run, no matter how charming his neighbor -
"Bon Dieu!" The first two forkfuls had been shoveled in. The third went slower, and he held the fourth up for inspection, head cocked. It couldn't be...
"It's terrible, isn't it?" She was glancing sideways, grinning more widely.
He looked closer at the stringy meat, sniffed, licked his lips. He could see her dark eyes sparkling as she watched him. "It tastes like—"
"Like cat," she finished for him.
"Yes, like cat," he agreed without thinking. Then he frowned. No one else should know that unless... "How do you recognize cat?" he asked, not joking now.
"Just the way you do." The teasing had vanished, dark eyes had widened and lowered. "It's gamier, all dark meat, the kidneys are lower and wider apart than in rabbit, the pelvic basin is different —"
"When you saw it in the black market..."
"When it was the only meat available and you didn't ask questions." She was looking at him again, flirtation gone, dark eyes really seeing him this time, and it was like a recognition signal. "When it was the only thing that kept you and your friends from starving that day."
"In our city, the rabbits went first, the horses went second. Cats didn't come out till the last." Why was he talking about this at all? It had been a long time since then. "It made a difference. But not when your next-door neighbor was calling down the hall—"
"Calling for Minou," she cut in. "It was sad. As a small child I was very sad for all the little cats that I didn't see anymore. But I lived through the war. And the cats came back."
"So you and the famille Lustucru survived?" He smiled. He couldn't help it because she'd grinned at the name, a wide, delighted, urchin grin, then burst out laughing.
"How did you know?" she asked, amazed laughter still echoing. "That's what Jean-Michel and I called ourselves. La famille Lustucru. Only we sang it differently." And in a small light voice she chanted,
C'est le père Michel qui a perdu son chat, Et crie par la fentre qui le lui rendra. C'est la mère Lustucru Qui lui a répondu—
" Ton chat, ce n'est plus un chat, c'est un ragoût!" they finished in chorus, laughing, and Illya, who had only come in to eat lunch on the run, found himself feeling at home with a girl he had just met, his sense of panic assuaged by the recognition signals, like Very rockets, exchanged out of long-ago pasts. He doubted that she was a tail, a plant or a mole; nobody had known he would be lunching here, not even he himself. She was just herself.
Then she raised those dark eyes again and he felt his heart pound hard, once, in sudden suspicion of himself. Just flirting, he tried to tell himself. You can't be in love with someone you've just met. Over a common basis of cat meat. But as he looked at the wide, high-set cheekbones and arching brows, echoing the wide, generous mouth, a face of distinction rather than prettiness, he wondered whether they had other things in common. Since she knew the taste of cat meat.
Reminded, he pushed aside the bowl of stew. He doubted that it was cat, probably beef that had gone bad, but the memory was too strong to allow him to finish. A pity—he'd wasted his two francs, and now there was that much less to put toward dinner.
He saw her catch the rueful glance he threw at his plate, her eyes staying on him with renewed amusement this time. "Come have dinner with us," she said.
"No, I couldn't." The withdrawal was instinctive, the caution instant.
"Of course you can. You'll be hungry. Especially after listening to Professeur Grillet rant on about Pierre Emmanuel for two hours. Are you taking the study group?"
"No, I have a physics group at the same time."
"Physics." She studied him again. "Come to dinner. You should talk with Jean-Michel."
"Le père Michel?"
"The very one."
He knew he shouldn't. But he'd been isolated for so long, pursuing studies solitary because of his scientific concentrations, suspect as much for his nationality as all of them were about protecting their dissertation subject matters.
She was silent, waiting.
"All right." He yielded to temptation and to curiosity.
"Wonderful!" She gave him an address not too far from his own. "Come at six." As he stood up, she said quickly, "Je m'appelle Claude."
His class and study group lasted till late afternoon, and the early winter night had already closed in when he emerged from the hall. Shrugging a little further into his jacket, he looked at the sky, wondering when it would rain, knowing from the damp touch of the air that snow wasn't likely. He stood in the bustling courtyard, and knew he had come to a decision point.
Claude had invited him to dinner. He knew he shouldn't become involved, even at this level, but he missed the companionship of other students. He was supervised far more loosely than he had been in Cambridge, where he'd lived in a small house composed exclusively of Russian students: it had been very difficult to escape surveillance. He'd been able to form several professional associations with his fellow graduates, but it had gone no further. He suspected that the organization here had been slightly ... corrupted ... by the decadent Western life in the capital of love. Or maybe it was just that the Distinguished Honors of his Cambridge doctorate had won him a slight loosening of control. He could think of no other reasons why they had told him to find a room in one of a number of cheap pensions on their list rather than to cram him into the already overcrowded dwelling that housed his compatriots.
Illya sighed and admitted to himself that he was hungry; going to dinner would mean he would only have to buy a bottle of wine to bring, and be able to hoard his shekels for the other books he needed. And it would mean company. If he was lucky, intelligent company. And if not, it was only one evening wasted. His decision rationalized, he shifted his bookbag, and set off at a fast pace for the little wineseller's on the corner. Their reds weren't too bad...
Half-an-hour later he shifted the book bag again and knocked on the shabby door. One of the best things about Paris: walking everywhere kept you fit and limber for all the stair-climbing you had to do. It opened promptly, and a man about his own height or maybe a little taller said, "You must be Claude's friend." He extended a hand and drew Illya in, pulling him into the center of the room, saying something about jackets and damp and closets. Then Claude came out from behind the little curtain strung along the side of the room, still buttoning her dress at the neck, and Illya knew he'd done the right thing. The look of friendly welcome warmed his lonely soul and he yielded his jacket and bookbag without even being aware of it, until Claude's voice brought him back to earth.
"And this is le père Michel. Jean-Michel Jeandet, this is—euh—" She looked at Illya expectantly, and Jean-Michel burst into laughter.
"Claude, you invited him home and didn't even know his name!" His laughter was rich and inviting, and Illya found himself relaxing, more than he should with people he didn't know.
"Illya Kuryakin," he murmured.
Jean-Michel nodded. "Salut," he said more quietly, but with a hint of mirth still behind it. "If Claude invited you, you are welcome and I am glad to meet you." He held out his hand.
Illya took it and they exchanged a strong clasp. And that was the beginning of a fellowship that was, for that year, closer than family, more precious than blood.
Two years ago...
He'd left after he took his doctorate, returning to Moscow for the rest of his training, fitting back into the mould as if he had never left. It had just been another skin, he told himself; another chance to practice covers that he could use all his professional life.
Most of the time, it worked. And over the next couple of years, he was able to let the memories settle further and further into the recesses of his mind, able to look them over more dispassionately for points of interest. His profession was demanding more of his attention, and he enjoyed it, enjoyed the training, the missions, the convoluted thinking necessary to maintain the personas for the cover. Enjoyed the chances to exercise his talent for languages. And it finally brought him the chance to travel to America, where everything he did would be on a razor's edge, because of who he was and what he was, in an association of people who were also what he was.
And it had taken a dream and a noisy visual hell of a disco to remind him what he also had been. Had had. And could still have.
If he chose.
Two months ago...
The night of the disco he had awakened to the reason for his restlessness. He'd looked at his partner, dancing among the others, and had realized that he was treading near forbidden ground. It was not possible in America to simply declare oneself. There were consequences and repercussions, none of them pleasant. He'd been there long enough to explore the subculture and, while it was lively and sometimes overexuberant, it was also shut-in and secretive, concealed among the ruins of otherwise normal lives.
He had too much of that with his job to desire it outside of work. And the only person who might make it tolerable was not available. If Napoleon had ever indicated by even so much as a breath that he was interested, Illya could have lived with being undercover at work and out. But his partner, while a solid presence at his back and side for the job and during some of their free time off it, also had a lively sideline in dating going on, and it had been exclusively women.
Illya had had fun finding out which secretaries were daring and which demure. He had also had the occasional escapade among the culture of men, but none of his fast and fleeting contacts in either world did anything to feed the growing hunger for a constant connection, a grounding of the spirit in the body which would turn his time outside of work into a satisfying existence.
He had endured, depending upon the involvement of his work and the growing ease of his partnership with Napoleon for that satisfaction, until he looked around in the disco and saw that there was nothing there for him. A man could not exist on an acquaintance with Miss Rosie Palm and her five daughters alone when he'd once had so much more.
The next day, he had started the manipulation that brought him to Paris on a temporary assignment, and had started searching for the two who had been family and partners to him then. In the back of his mind, he acknowledged that he might not find them; after all, staying in touch had been impossible. But if he could find them, perhaps they could pick up where they had left off. He could request permanent assignment. And if they had disappeared, as so much else had, he could at least stay in a place, a city, where he might find his connection more openly than in America.
Illya raised his hand as the waiter walked by again, and his wine was refreshed a moment later. He shut his eyes, let the music wash through him again as if it were breath itself, then let it out and opened them again, looking into the distance, not seeing the smoke or the small glints of reflected light, but the dream that had disturbed him when he'd had it. The first day he'd been at U.N.C.L.E., the first day he'd been in America, the first night in his own little apartment.
One year ago...
He'd been very tired, too tired to sleep, wired despite schooling himself to calm and impassivity, excited by the potential he'd seen that day, brain relentlessly churning through all it had observed, all the experiences of a strange new country and new customs that were exhausting to keep up with, no matter how much he'd read about them. Now that he'd seen the U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, talked to Mr. Waverly again, he was more convinced than ever that this would work, that he could find a scope for everything he wanted to do. It would just take a little time to get accustomed to it all, but he was used to finding his feet quickly, and he was sure that Napoleon would help.
And Mitzi—he reviewed Mitzi's efficiency and some of her other charms, remembered some of the other female staff he'd been introduced to, several of whom had exchanged dove-eyes with his partner, some of whom had had a questioning, faintly flirty look when he'd been introduced—oh, yes, there was scope for everything. He'd been his usual reserved self around them, but he knew who they were, and he was pretty sure that Napoleon had a string of them on the side too. Even on this first day, he'd felt his new associate's impact, could feel the physical fascination Napoleon exercised as naturally as breathing. And was stirring in Illya, too.
Illya wondered why, during the long day. He knew he'd never seen Napoleon before, other than in the briefing photos before he'd come to the States, but he kept being reminded of something... someone...
Little things that tugged at his memory. As Napoleon laughed at him over his shoulder when Illya exclaimed at the cafeteria food... The trick of letting his eyes go wide and watching you as he dipped his head... Something about the line of his body as he held the door for Mitzi...
His head was starting to hurt, all the fatigue and strangeness catching up, and he'd finally turned off most of the lights and taken himself and his drink to the older armchair, pulling it over toward the window, stopping short of actually placing it in the window space. He sat, feeling the stiffness, the tension, and consciously started relaxing, letting himself sink deeper into the soft worn cushions, trying to make a familiar space for himself out of the strangeness of the day, of the transition. He took a deep breath, and let it out, another, less deep, letting tension flow out of this arm, that leg, until he was breathing easily, slowly, and his limbs felt like lead. He let his head loll back on the headrest, looking out the window into the deep blue-black winter night that had fallen over the unfamiliar city.
The street was busy and the bustle of buses, cars, and people floated up, emphasizing the silence in his apartment. Illya sat in the comfortable old chair, taking an occasional sip from his drink, and let his mind wander as it would, letting the events of the day replay themselves randomly in his mind, aware that at some point his thoughts would quiet enough that he could fall asleep, and quietly, without effort, the resemblance he'd been searching for slipped into his mind.
Napoleon reminded him, a little, of Jean-Michel.
Idly, he compared them, head back, eyes searching for any familiar constellations in the few stars he could see that weren't drowned by the visual noise of city lights. Facially, there was a resemblance, though it was more as though one was a blur of the other: the same dark hair, though Jean-Michel's had been longer. Napoleon's somewhat aquiline nose was thinner, his chin more pronounced, but the sturdy cheekbones were the same, the set of the head on the neck similar. He thought Jean-Michel might have been a little taller, and of course, there was no distinctive mole. Overall, Napoleon was the more elegant, a bit more finely drawn in all particulars. Jean-Michel had been rather rougher around the edges, as befitted someone in the plastic arts. Even Jean-Michel's hands were bigger, broader, the fingers bluntly spatulate, the hands of an artist, of a sculptor—of a creative lover...
Illya could still feel those hands, lingering on the nape of his neck, trailing down the middle of his back, handling him, exploring just as his were doing...
The hands fell away and he stood without them, feeling cold where they had lain on his skin, even though he had his clothes on. But they were wrong, the gray cotton of the gulag uniform wrapped him, changing quietly to his perfectly normal shirt and trousers even as he thought, "I was never in the gulags." For a moment he thought he'd said it out loud, it echoed so, and he turned to see the cause of the echo. A long tunnel stretched into the distance and as he watched, stones bloomed through the dirt on the floor, and he recognized the back corridor where he sometimes would meet...
Who was he meeting? It was important to remember, to find out, because his feet were carrying him towards the meeting, starting to run down the tunnel, and he was calling to someone, someone who was going to leave if he didn't let him know he was coming, it was important. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the stones melt back into the ground as he passed, and he skidded, running wide around the next corner, overrunning the person who turned to meet him.
He could feel the gladness, could feel the welcome, could feel his own heart responding in a bloom of happiness. He was smiling as he slowed, felt the hands seize him in a welcome grip and looked up into a blurred face changing as crazily as Picasso's skewed visages, sliding from one into another, and then the body in front of him split into two, each taking one of the faces, a Janus of glad welcome and saddened leavetaking, and Illya found himself stammering, "Don't leave!"
The sound of his own voice woke him, blinking blurrily in the half-light of the lamp. The curtain from the window flicked out a little toward him, carried by cold air leaking through the frame, and he pushed himself to his feet, already losing the thread of the dream, muzzily aware that he should go to bed now, while he was drowsy enough to fall asleep.
He changed into his pajamas and flicked off the lamp, then padded into his bedroom and slid under the covers, stretching out, already yielding to the wave of slumber that reclaimed him, rolling up over him as soon as he lay prone and snug. Sliding back into it, he saw briefly the flagstones of the corridor in his reverie, but now there was only one face, and a light baritone voice that welcomed him, warm hands sliding lightly, lovingly, over his arms, and the well-loved voice said, "Stay." But he was lapped in an endless darkness, dragged down by black fatigue, and his tongue lay in the cold earth of his mouth and could not answer.
In the morning, he remembered very little of the previous evening and the few shards he could put together made no sense, except for that warm voice saying, "Stay." He carried that with him for the next few confusing weeks like a talisman as he learned the ropes of yet another new environment, fingering it a little in memory every time he grew frustrated with what he didn't yet know, and its utility faded over time as he settled into the Enforcement spot and became more comfortable with his partner, until the recollection finally disappeared completely.
Sitting at the little table, Illya watched the cigarette smoke eddy as the waiters threaded their way to and fro, creating currents that dragged the fragile smokescreens this way and that. The strong scent of unfiltered Gauloises—how had he ever done without it? He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the sharp, heavy scent of his wine mixing with the incredibly acrid smoke, and the dampish smell of many raincoats and topcoats, the rosin on the stage adding its sharp pungency.
The lazy arrhythmia of the drummer blended seamlessly with the noodling of the sax, with the cleaner, mellower notes of the guitar backlighting them, and he let himself sink back into the odd state of suspended presence this music induced in him, where every note was unexpected, yet dovetailed with the rest. Somewhat like the best times he'd had with Napoleon, where they acted as one mind with different actions, left hand and right hand, sax and guitar taking different paths to the syncopated drums. And for once the thought of his partner didn't provoke the irritated longing it usually did, just resonated with the wandering music, the clever, mathematically required notes, the perfect blend of intuition and logic.
His meditations were interrupted by a brusque tap on the table; one of the waiters had slapped a piece of paper in front of him. "I didn't order—" he started.
"Not an order. Somebody gave me a franc to deliver this to you." The waiter's black eyes challenged him and his finger still pinned the note to the table. Illya reluctantly drew out a 10-centime piece and tossed it to him.
"You've already been paid to deliver it. Leave." He felt blackmailed.
The waiter took in the situation and vanished.
Illya pulled the paper to him, unfolded it and tilted it up, trying to catch some of the dim light. The inscription was in bold black letters on white, making it marginally easier to decipher.
In the old spot.
Illya felt an electric shudder of anticipation and homecoming, followed by another, more disquieting one, which he finally pinned down. He reached for his wine and tossed it back. He shouldn't be feeling nervous. Jean-Michel had been part of his family here; there was nothing to fear. And yet, the cold feet still walked down his spine. He gave in to it for a couple of seconds, letting his nerves work themselves out, thinking of the last parting.
Two years ago...
Claude had come down to his room.
Claude had come down to his room with a bottle of Greek liqueur, and Jean-Michel had joined them later. They had stayed awake the whole night, making love in the dark little room, speaking of commonplaces, making no promises. He had pushed himself away from them in the early dawn, washed and dressed and made it to the airport in an hour, his two suitcases carrying very little more than they had when he arrived, but his mind and his heart infinitely richer than before.
He shuddered again at the memory, the spider walking down his backbone washed away in the warm flood of sensual reminiscence. He pushed the empty wine glass back and stood up.
The back corridor was still thronged with people, as it always had been when they frequented this club. And it still let out on the small courtyard, its puddles thin panes of ice in the cold night air. He slipped through, quiet and unnoticed, and plunged into the deserted corridor on the other side, feeling the chill of its flagstones surround him, a nervous exhilaration growing as he approached the bend. He made the turn -
Jean-Michel leaned on the wall in the corner of the bend, hands in his pockets, coat debonairly unbuttoned. His dark eyes rose and locked on to Illya's, expression calm, a small smile touching the corners of his mouth.
Illya halted, suddenly wary. They had been apart, grown apart, followed different paths for three years. Why was he doing this? What was he expecting? A fairy tale to come true? Even as he looked, a double-vision troubled him. He knew Jean-Michel, and yet he didn't know him. The coloring was right, but the proportions seemed suddenly false, wrong. Something about the head, something about the face... He tensed, ready to run...
Then Jean-Michel said, "Illya," and abruptly time rolled back, and they were lying tangled in the comforters, debating who would get up and get the petits pains for breakfast.
"Illya." He was pulled into a bear hug, was returning it, feeling the love and desire running through the familiar figure.
"Illya." Their mouths caught on each other, opened, the pressure familiar, welcoming.
"Papa Michel." He drew back a little, welcoming the wave of mingled nostalgic longing and raw desire that rose in him, thrumming through his belly. He fought down the memories so he could see clearly now, only to have it all blur as he saw the heat and longing in Jean-Michel's eyes, felt the those familiar spatulate fingers caressing his jaw. He closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, and smelled the subtle blend of Gauloises and Pernod that had always identified Jean-Michel to him.
He felt Jean-Michel's nose bury itself near the nape of his neck, sniffing him, tongue venturing out in a lick that made him arch his head forward, and the slightly raspy light tenor he remembered said, "Shampooing pour les bébés. Still so contradictory."
Illya's hands went by reflex to the strong shoulders, to the buttons of the jacket, undoing them in a snapping rush, running his hands over the warm shirt, feeling the muscles tense under his hand, and he undid those buttons too, thrust his hands under the thin cotton in an impatient push and felt at last the warm, warm skin he remembered, the flat strong planes of the chest. He ran his hands over the ribs, down the sides, and found Jean-Michel's arms threaded between his, going straight for his belt. He pulled at Jean-Michel's buckle, feeling a similar loosening at his own waist, and then he'd managed to pull down the zipper and his hands were sliding down the front of the narrow hips, parting and easing around the warm genitals, finding Jean-Michel already hard under his caressing fingers, and he drew his hands along the hard, heavy cock, closing one hand into a fist, letting the other slide even further down to gather the pendulous sac into his hand.
Jean-Michel had echoed his movements, the warm skin of his hands rubbing wonderfully on the hot stone of Illya's hardness, and Illya felt as if a giant cord ran from his throat to his groin which Jean-Michel's fingers were strumming at will. He groaned aloud as the deft fingers moved under him and along his length, teasing the head, firmly fisting down the root, and he put all his memories to work, remembering which touch nudged, which inflamed, and at their behest one hand went up to the open shirt and lightly touched a nipple.
Jean-Michel's head went back, his eyes closing in pleasure. Illya kissed the vulnerable neck, nipping gently, then harder as Jean-Michel's hands were moving on him. The thick strum of desire reverberated in him from his throat down through his chest to his groin, pulling tighter and tighter, as his hands moved on Jean-Michel's body, on his cock, and it was too much, too much, and he gave himself up to pure sensation as the string was plucked again for the last time, feeling Jean-Michel's body shake and tauten against his, felt himself grunt and stiffen, cocks jerking rhythmically as their spend mingled, warm between their bodies, sheltered and starting to slowly drip down the open space where their clothes exposed their naked flesh.
Illya supported himself with his hands against the wall around Jean-Michel's body as his legs quivered with the strength of that release, letting his lips roam the flung-back neck, their breath coming in hard-drawn gasps, until his stance firmed and he pushed himself back up a little, only to feel those artist's hands warm against his back, and he leaned back into them, bracing himself with one shoulder against the wall.
He felt one of those large hands leave his back and fumble between them in the folds of their clothes, emerging and flattening itself against their stomachs, then the thin cotton of a handkerchief was being wiped across their skin, mopping up the remnants, turning carefully here and there, and finally being balled up and tossed casually to one side.
Illya made an abortive movement to catch it, and Jean-Michel chuckled softly. "It doesn't matter. There are so many other souvenirs here, one more will make no difference."
Illya let his hand fall again. It was true, the floor was littered with such debris; it would make no difference. He leaned his head back against the wall, looking at the man he had come to find and blinked as the double-vision intruded again, showing him a more elegant version. He wondered why he was thinking of Napoleon at such a moment, and firmly put the thought out of his mind, trying to return to the mindless bliss of the last few minutes, wondering why all he could think of was the slight ache in his deflated penis, feeling an odd emptiness in his satisfaction.
"I was surprised to hear you were looking for me. Why have you returned now?" Jean-Michel's voice was curious. His hand came up and patted Illya's shoulder, stroked a finger gently along his jaw, the same tender motion as before when they were all together, letting his other hand drift down to rest on Illya's hip near the wall.
"You both used to do that," Illya said. Claude's light, clever fingers on him, stroking one side of his face as Jean-Michel stroked the other.
"Touching was fun. There was always something to experience, something to do. And it was fun making you respond. All of us together. A pity it's over." Remembered sensuality colored Jean-Michel's voice. He shifted so that he too leaned on the wall with one shoulder, facing Illya, and he focused on Illya again. "Why have you come back? Why have you tried to find us?"
Illya opened his mouth to tell him of the memories, the longing—and found he had no answer. You idiot! his mind raged. Just say it! You've traveled back across the ocean for this!
"What's the matter?" Jean-Michel's eyebrows arched in inquiry.
"I missed you." Even to his own ears, it sounded inadequate. He felt the want shaking inside him, the same want he had carried across an ocean, had let draw him back to remembered delight and comfort, and he realized with vague astonishment that it hadn't been slaked by their encounter at all.
"So you returned for a visit and tracked me down?" Jean-Michel's voice was still soft, intimate, his hand shifting from Illya's shoulder, rising to his hair, pulling the little strands out and letting them fall in a repetitive motion. The action brought his sleeve close to Illya's face, and he smelled something else under the familiar aroma, a strange cologne mixed in with the tobacco and alcohol he was used to.
"I was trying to find you and Claude."
"Ah. I cannot help you with Claude, I'm afraid. She's become a good little matron, in the 14ème, I believe. Far from her shocking past."
"Claude? Married?" Illya was floored. How could she have done that?
"Married. I was not invited to the wedding." That was an even greater shock. Illya discerned a trace of sadness in Jean-Michel's tone, but it vanished before the end of the sentence. Jean-Michel shrugged. "It was what she wanted."
"But her records didn't show..." Illya could have bitten off his tongue.
"Records? You mean you investigated her?" Now it was Illya's turn to shrug, assuming the flat mask that usually worked so well with everybody except Napoleon.
"Of course. I was trying to find you both."
"And you couldn't find her."
Illya shook his head. "I found a trace of you first. I thought I'd find you together."
Jean-Michel dropped his hand back to Illya's face, palm against his cheek. The laughing lust in the dark-brown eyes changed, gentled, and he grew afraid in his soul at the kindness he saw replace it.
"That time is over, Illya."
A silence fell and Illya felt his dream of homecoming wither and die in the small cold space in which they found themselves. The sad kindness in Jean-Michel's eyes burned him and he felt his face freeze in the expressionless mask Napoleon teased him about.
"It is over. We cannot revisit it. It no longer exists."
"You still come here." He kept the disappointment out of his voice, too.
"I came because ... because there was a rumor someone was looking for me, and it sounded like you. I don't come here anymore. Now that I've seen you, I'll never come here again."
"Why did you come then?" There was hurt blooming, a fist round his heart, but he'd expected it to squeeze more tightly. Why didn't it hurt more?
"It's ignoble to hide from someone you've loved without an explanation." Jean-Michel brought his face closer, dropped a kiss on Illya's closed lips, drew back.
"I left without an explanation. I didn't want to do that."
"We knew you were leaving. It was the beginning of the end for all of us."
"You. You were our essential element. Without you to balance us, Claude and I grew apart. She ended up marrying after she got her matrise. What a waste. A proper little businessman, 9 to 5, no adventures. She told me she was attracted by his steadiness after all our wildness. I knocked at her door one day and she'd gone, no forwarding address. Joelle across the hall told me about her marriage plans."
"And you never heard from her again?"
"I never tried to find her. You left. She left. The comedy was done." Jean-Michel shrugged, a quick movement of regret.
"What about you?"
"What about me?" Jean-Michel smiled lightly, looking inward, then focused on Illya once more. "I do what I can. A good business man by day, and I come home to my love at night. I prowl different streets now."
"You were going to be a sculptor."
Jean-Michel looked at him with love and a little bit of pity. "All over."
He stroked Illya's cheek again, dropped his hands and did up Illya's zip quickly and efficiently, settled his jacket better, then did up his own fly and moved on to his buttons, twitching them rapidly through their buttonholes, first on the shirt, then the jacket. He pushed himself away from the wall as he buttoned his coat, retrieved thin leather gloves from the pockets and drew them on. When he'd finished, he dropped his hands to his sides.
"It's all over."
Then he moved away in a swirl of coat, and Illya heard his quick footsteps dying away down the corridor.
Illya stood leaning against the wall for a long minute. He'd expected to feel devastated, ruined, not this vague regret, mingled with a feeling of empty expectancy, as if it weren't over yet. He chided himself harshly: this was indulgent. Let it go and move on. You've just had your dreams dashed. No happily ever after; no wonderful reunion. Experience it and let it go. And yet he couldn't help but feel that there was something more, something just out of reach, and it made him nervous, a little jumpy.
He moved restlessly to the other corner of the bend. When they'd met there before, the corridor had continued. Now it was blocked by a wall across it. He stuck his hands into his pockets, turned sharply around and nearly swallowed his tongue in shock as he saw someone leaning in the corner so recently vacated.
"Bozhe!" He backed up against the wall in quick reflex, aghast that anyone could have snuck up on him, then stilled.
It was Napoleon who now stood casually leaned back into the corner, dark eyes steady on his.
The double-vision of fifteen minutes ago rose up again and for an instant he saw the two of them super-imposed. He'd never wanted to make the point by point comparison. He knew that Jean-Michel had reminded him vaguely of Napoleon, and Napoleon of Jean-Michel. In the two years since he'd left Paris, he'd pushed aside all particulars of his life with Claude by the time he'd arrived in America.
But now it was blindingly obvious. The two of them were more alike than he'd ever admitted, Jean-Michel and Napoleon. Standing in the bend, staring at his partner who had appeared from nowhere, seeming to have risen up out of the earth, he could see just how alike they were. The same height, the same proud bearing of the head, the same sturdy build. And how unlike in other ways—Napoleon's features were drawn more finely, clefts and lines ran deeper, his fingers longer and more elegant, his eyes -
Illya faltered in his comparison, caught by the look of pain he'd never expected to be seen directed at him—then it was gone, and just that steady stare was directed at him before Napoleon's eyes fell.
"Didn't expect me, did you?" It was Napoleon's voice, deeper than Jean-Michel's.
"No." Illya tried to calm his rapidly beating heart, taking a quick breath, then letting it out slowly. "I thought you were in New York."
"A very Pimpernel am I." Napoleon's tone was light.
"Why are you here?" Illya wasn't going to let him get away with it.
"I had—business—in the area. They should really keep these hallways up to snuff. A coat of paint would work wonders. Make it safe to walk the hallways." Napoleon looked up at the ceilings with great attention.
Illya felt the blood burn into his cheeks. "How long have you been here?"
Napoleon's eyes fell again. "Long enough to see you with your paramour."
"Close enough ... to hear?" If Napoleon had been close enough to see, he must have been close enough to hear.
"Don't worry, I guarded the passageway against all comers." Jocular, but with an undertone Illya couldn't quite interpret.
"So you heard him say goodbye." Somehow, it lessened the hurt, that someone had heard it. Made it more real.
Now Napoleon's eyes flashed back up to his, cool, guarded. "It sounded pretty intense."
Illya saw that Napoleon was using the corner to hold himself up, arms and ankles crossed in front of him. Ostensibly a relaxed position, it was both defensible and defensive. As if he were going to be attacked. And yet Napoleon was the one worried about his partner. Illya felt as though he were groping toward something he couldn't quite put together.
Illya shrugged. "It was a realization. The past is past. Mere romantic nostalgia." He studied Napoleon more closely, noting the utter stillness. He'd seen this often, when Napoleon had gathered himself just before action.
"It sounded like he—was—important—to you." Just for a moment, a precious, fleeting moment, Illya saw empathy, hurt and pain blaze uncontrolled out of his partner's eyes. A wave of protective anger flared through him and in the furnace of its wake, the pieces spun slowly into place, dropping silently through the heat of his realization until they formed a lacy whole, a spider web of thought and intuition that spanned his entire being, a puzzle solved.
In the clarity of single vision finally achieved, he closed the distance between them, moving lightly, clean and free, raised his hands, and laid them gently on his partner's crossed arms, taking him by the wrists.
"You do not need to protect yourself against me."
"Who said I need to protect myself against you?" Napoleon's voice was smooth and cutting. "You're a highly trained spy; I'm better."
Illya let himself snort in wry amusement at his partner's blindness. It was easy, when you could see clearly.
The muffled snort was the last straw. Napoleon stiffened, his voice harsh and low with rage. "I followed you to Paris to find out why you were thinking of quitting on us. You asked for a temporary transfer and didn't have the decency to tell me about it. I get here to find you so bent on fucking my double that you'll give him a handjob in an alleyway." His eyes were lit with fury and pain. "I don't need to protect myself against you. I thought we were connected but you've done a dandy job of cutting the cord."
He pushed away from the wall, and Illya slammed him back by the wrists he still held, eyes locked on Napoleon's.
Illya let the words go by him, kept his grip hard and Napoleon off-balance against the wall. He could feel muscles quivering under the woolen sleeves, pent-up anger vibrating through the tense body, and he spoke even more gently, keeping his eyes on Napoleon's.
"You need to protect yourself against me because you do not yet know that I am family to you," he said. "I went looking for the family I had. I did not know that it was gone."
"He seemed to be more than family to you." Napoleon's hands clenched into fists.
"He was. He and Claude were family, lovers, friends. They were everything to me while I was here."
"And you went looking for them so you could pick up where you left off." Napoleon's eyes were pained.
"Yes." Illya saw no reason to sugar-coat it. "I thought that was what I wanted. You were not available."
"I?" Napoleon drew a deep, ragged breath, hope and despair warring at Illya's matter-of-fact tone. "I was not available? You thought that I—?"
Illya smiled, and Napoleon saw that it carried that same joyous aspect it had when Illya was waiting to come to Paris.
"I thought that I only needed sex, and America is no kinder to that than my country. When I first came to Paris, I had had some liaisons, but they were fast nothings. No love, just bodies. Make your body feel good, and nothing else needs to be done. So I knew how to have sex. But I had never made love.
"Paris changed that. I met Claude and Jean-Michel. I learned that making love could give you a reason to enjoy your life. It created a balance. We revolved around each other during the year I was here."
"You and Claude and Jean-Michel?" Napoleon's question was grudging, but his voice had lost the harsh burr of rage. Illya could hear the calculating undertone, and took care to grin only on the inside: he'd gotten Napoleon thinking again, not just reacting.
"Yes, me and Claude and Jean-Michel. We balanced each other. It was a joy being with intelligent people you love, who care about you, whom you care about. It was a joy belonging out of choice.
"I just never thought we would walk away from it. I had no choice. I had to return to the Soviet Union as soon as I passed the defense, before the end of the year. I left in the middle of the week, very early in the morning. I always thought they would stay together, be together. Because then I could come back."
Napoleon was looking at him steadily now, and his voice carried sympathy. "You could come back home. And I helped push you away."
Illya shrugged. "A little."
Napoleon held his gaze, mouth quirking, eyebrow lifting, and Illya sighed. "A lot. We worked so well together on so many levels, that not being able to create that kind of belonging was torture."
"Weren't there other places you could—?" Napoleon started.
Illya cut him off. "Home is where you have sex and love, not just sex."
"Yes. I acted on those ideals. I am just sorry that it hurt you."
It was Napoleon's turn to snort in disbelief at this statement. "You set up a complete operation to abandon me and you're just sorry? You set this whole thing up so you could leave and come back to what you consider your real family, and you're just sorry?"
"I am sorry that I hurt you that way, Napoleon." Illya's eyes fell before his, then his partner raised his head again. "Especially since it showed me two very important things.
"The family you love is precious and can be gone in an instant.
"And the family that lets you re-capture that feeling may not even be aware of it. I left you in spite of all our connection because I was not aware of it. Nor were you."
He tugged gently at Napoleon's wrists and Napoleon let them drift open, his eyes fixed on Illya's, guarded hope in their depths.
Illya pulled again and Napoleon came away from the wall, obeying the signals of Illya's hands, uncrossing his ankles to stand on his own, hands still quiescently captive in Illya's grasp. Illya slid his hands up onto Napoleon's shoulders, held him there. "I will never leave again."
Napoleon stood for an endless minute between Illya's palms, dark eyes searching his partner's grey ones, searching and apparently finding, because he stepped forward, hands coming up to Illya's face, and said, "Illya," before tilting his face and kissing him.
Napoleon felt Illya's mouth warm under his, opening under his as he opened his lips and pressed with all the warmth and fury in him, all the love and frustration, as his tongue explored so delicately, so strongly, as it encountered Illya's tongue exploring, promising, and the kiss broke as he drew back, as he tried simply breathing.
Air was scarce, but it seemed to have no effect on Napoleon's busy brain. And he hated the conclusion his mind came to. This was too easy. Illya wouldn't just turn away from somebody he'd cared for. His partner might not have many people he truly cared for, but when he did, it was deep. Napoleon knew that he and his partner were still connected, by friendship at least. Before this, he would have said by something deeper. But now, he didn't know.
It hurt to ask. But he had to.
"I thought you..." Napoleon's voice was harsh velvet, grinding in his throat. "I thought you and he ... would make up somehow." He drew a savage breath. "I thought ... you came here so that you could be together again. What will you do now?"
He couldn't believe this was happening, couldn't believe he could hold himself open for this kind of hurt, couldn't believe he was still going to let Illya hurt him like this if he chose to walk away.
His partner must have read him through the connection, which Napoleon could feel more strongly than ever, because Illya pulled their heads together until they stood forehead to forehead and in the tiny hush between them said, "Avant de créér le chef d'oeuvre, Dieu a fait un brouillon. Before God creates a masterpiece, he does a rough sketch."
He smiled into Napoleon's eyes. "I have made my rough sketch. Now, we will create a masterpiece."
He leaned forward against Napoleon, his hands going to Napoleon's collar, and Napoleon's hands half-rose before he tore himself away, whirling away from his startled partner.
"Not here," he ground out breathlessly, and walked quickly down the hallway, "not here, where he was, where there are ghosts and others." He couldn't explain it better than that, the revulsion that had risen even as he had leaned into his partner's nimble fingers, raising his chin so that Illya could undo his collar buttons, suddenly and completely aware that his head had tilted back, his eyelids drooping—just like that bastard Jean-Michel, just like that half-assed son-of-a-bitch who had seduced his partner—the bad copy of himself.
It propelled him out, away, trying to think of some other venue to satisfy the incredibly intense arousal he'd experienced—until the startled cry behind him stopped him in mid-stride down the shabby corridor.
Napoleon stopped. The voice was distant enough that he could tell that Illya hadn't moved. The call was startled and urgent, and it woke a chord of familiarity in him he couldn't place.
Illya's voice was lower now. He could feel the heat in it, the longing.
God, it was tugging at his core. Low, husky, full of want and loneliness, and unmoving.
Napoleon turned and went back. He came round the bend and saw Illya still standing just where he had been, face calm, eyes fixed on the corridor, an unguarded look of relief crossing his features as Napoleon reappeared.
"I understand," his partner said in a low voice. "All you can see is that Jean-Michel looked like you and I was making love to Jean-Michel here. But I need to make love to you here, the first time. I need to feel our connection re-born in the same place the other was broken. I do not want this to become a holy spot for me."
Illya ran his tongue over his lips. "I want it to become a corridor like all the other corridors. I want to ground my family and love in you."
Napoleon heard the words, heard the embarrassment under them at having to admit to this need on top of all the others, and understood that Illya still felt he could be rejected. Comprehension sparked tenderness.
"I can deal with that," he said softly. "I can deal with being loved."
He walked slowly back over to the corner, standing in front of Illya again, and let himself lean back into the corner. "Just promise me you won't call me Jean-Michel during this part."
Illya grinned, the wide, shining grin that appeared when he was genuinely happy. "I think I can promise that." He leaned into Napoleon's space once more. "Where were we? Oh, yes, here is the top button, here is the second one...Wait, your jacket needs to be undone too."
Napoleon's breath hissed inward as Illya's lips touched his neck, lightly, teasingly, even as his fingers slowly undid the jacket buttons. Let out the breath shakily as the shirt buttons were also carefully undone. He was tempted to help, but realized even as he raised his hands that Illya needed to do this on his own, needed to dismiss his ghosts, however loving they had been.
So he relaxed as much as he could against the corner wall, let his head tilt back, and tried not to be self-conscious about the echo of the position he'd walked in on. Shortly after that, he didn't have to concentrate on it at all. Illya's fingers had slipped into the open shirt and were dancing over his chest, running over his neck, pinching, patting, and Illya's teeth were delivering sharp little nips to the skin he could reach.
Napoleon's shirt was pushed aside and his nipples were seized in a firm bite and pinch. He yelped in surprise, then the yelp changed into breathy little gasps as Illya tortured both nipples simultaneously.
"Where—did—you—oh, God—learn to—do—that?" he managed, then drew in a deeper gasp when one nipple was loosed and the hand explored lower, sliding under his belt. He reflexively drew in his stomach to allow passage, and then felt the warm skin of Illya's palm glide straight under the waistband of his briefs and onto the hardness of his cock, massaging it. Illya's other hand was busy undoing his belt, undoing the zipper, pushing down the confining fabric and Napoleon's cock was free, released into the cool air, where it was captured between both Illya's hands and petted, made much of, explored thoroughly by touch, but not by sight, because Illya's lips were busy driving Napoleon crazy with the little nips all along his jaw and neck.
Napoleon vibrated like a bow, his body caught in sensual overstimulation, blood still racing from the earlier rollercoaster of anger and hope. He felt his balls pulling up, felt his ass muscles tighten, his gut roil once, his entire physical world shrinking down to the one urge that just needed one little bit more to shoot down his spine and out his cock. Then Illya's hands pulled here at the same time that he bit down there and Napoleon's body imploded and vanished out his dick, springing free of any corporeal connection, and Illya's mouth fastened over his before he could shout, Illya's hands stilling, mouth working his, Illya's entire body leaning into his to support him as Napoleon's weight slumped forward, every muscle exhausted at once.
Napoleon felt his partner's hands on his briefs, and realized dazedly that Illya was wiping off the come. Then he felt those hands holding his face, heard the soft voice murmuring to him. He couldn't understand them all, they seemed to be mixed English and Russian, but the cadence was soothing and he relaxed into Illya's hold, relishing the grasp, thinking vaguely that he'd experienced being held by his partner a lot during the past year, but this was different from all the rest. He felt—cherished. Indulged.
He finally roused himself, stretching a little in his partner's grasp, meeting Illya's eyes and seeing the connection, whole and expanded. He raised a hand, brushing the back of it over Illya's lips, and Illya kissed the knuckles as they trailed over his mouth.
"I didn't say it," Illya said and Napoleon chuckled.
"That's true," he allowed. "I did, however, hear you say my name."
"I did?" Illya put on a patently false puzzled expression. "When?"
"Right after you bit me."
"Oh? When was that?" Little devils danced in Illya's eyes now.
"I think it was—here," Napoleon said, pulling down his partner's collar and bringing his teeth together. Illya yelped and tried to push Napoleon away, but Napoleon caught his wrist and kept it down.
"Or maybe—here." He seized a tiny corner of skin just under the jaw. Illya caught his breath sharply, then groaned. His fingers caught at Napoleon's hand on his wrist.
"Now that Jean-Michel and Claude have been put back where they belong, in the past, let me show you some of the future," Napoleon said, and let his hands and body create a new image for Illya, where the fair hair was caught on the rough spots on the wall, and Illya's eyes were closed, his face upturned, mouth open. Napoleon covered it, savoring it, loving the way Illya groaned under his lips, his agile fingers, bringing Illya closer and closer to the edge, dancing around it, holding off.
Then Illya brought up his own hand, wrapped it around Napoleon's on both their cocks, and they exploded into their deeper connection on their own, with no shadows hovering on the sidelines.
"I just wasn't prepared to think about you and other people. I know you've dated in the office, but Mitzi didn't think you'd gone outside it," Napoleon said, looking in the mirror to tie his tie, talking to Illya's reflection.
They'd come back to Napoleon's hotel room, walking fast in the cold dark to stay warm, easy in each other's company. The weather had cleared while they had been inside, the stars sparkling through wisps of cloud in the clearing sky. They had stopped at the bridge to look up at the play of starlight on water and Illya's stomach had rumbled, loudly enough that Napoleon had laughed and promised that they'd have dinner first.
"First?" Illya had asked. "Before what?"
And his blood had sparked and raced at the sultry promise of Napoleon's whispered, "Dessert."
So he was watching Napoleon change for supper, talking lightly about what he'd known or surmised.
"She didn't? How would she know?" Illya turned on his back on the bed, looking at the ceiling.
"Anything one finds out, the others know. They can communicate faster than skywriting. Damn." Napoleon inspected the button, went and found the nail scissors in his Dopp kit, and snipped the dangling thread. "And she didn't know about your taste in men."
"My taste in men is impeccable, but I don't expect women, especially women I date, to know that." Illya examined the ceiling idly. "It always takes you so long to get dressed."
"It takes as long as it takes. I like your taste in men. I wish I'd been certain about it earlier."
"It is not permitted in either of our countries to be clear about our taste in men. It is why I returned here, where I can be as clear as I want to be." Illya kept his eyes on the ceiling.
"And what about women?" Napoleon paused, looked at Illya in the mirror. "Will you still be clear about women?"
Illya lowered his gaze from the ceiling, raised himself up on one elbow. "I am clear about women. Women and masterpieces do not mix." He saw the warmth bloom in Napoleon's eyes, Napoleon's smile, and asked his own question.
"And your taste in women?" He was sure of the answer, but found that he needed to hear it.
Napoleon shrugged and looked amused. "Women are fun. Some men think women are another race, possibly an alien race, but they're wrong. They're fun. They may look at things from a different angle, but women are people. The ones I date are cuddly and experienced, know the score, are a delight to be with. They can be soft, they can be hard. And they can be viciously intelligent. Just look at some of the ladies we've come up against!
"But once you've learned to talk with them, they can be your best friends in that alien race. They're worth all the effort put into wooing them."
Napoleon turned back to the mirror, finished buttoning the shirt, knowing Illya was still watching him. Still waiting.
"Women are fun." He flipped up the collar, threaded the tie under, flipped it down again, started knotting it. He found Illya's eyes in the reflection. "But you are essential."
Essential. Illya heard it, examined it from all sides. It expressed exactly what he felt for Napoleon. And Napoleon thought he was essential.
Jean-Michel had also said that. That he, Illya, had been essential to the small family that they had been. His leaving had removed an essential thread and they had dissolved.
If he was essential, then he could stay.
Napoleon turned and preened just a little, lifting his chin, tilting his head. Illya felt a smile steal over his face and tried to bite it back. I went looking for my wild animals, and found a peacock instead, he thought with as much sarcasm as he could muster. But even the sarcasm was tinted with affection, and he finally let the smile out. Heaven forbid that I minister even further to his vanity.
Napoleon caught the grin in the mirror, and the mobile brows quirked upward. "You're smiling? There must be something wrong then," he said in that amused voice.
"Oh, no," Illya said innocently, "nothing is wrong. You look perfect."
Napoleon frowned, trying to decipher the smile, and turned back to the mirror. "Something is wrong if you're giving me the choirboy look. Hair's parted okay," he muttered to himself, checking his reflection suspiciously, running his fingers over his fly, finding nothing amiss. He turned, looking over his shoulder at the mirror, straining to see his back without disturbing the drape of the suit.
"What about my jacket? Is it on straight?" he asked worriedly.
Illya couldn't resist. In his most dulcet tones of calm reassurance, he said, "Of course it is. And I must say, a straight jacket suits you a treat."
"Oh, good, I thought—" Napoleon stopped short. "What did you say?"
"It looks fine, Napoleon, and you know it," Illya said, laughing. "Stop playing the peacock and let's go."
"Are you impugning my sanity, Kuryakin?" Napoleon half-turned from the mirror. His arm shot out and dragged a startled Illya next to him. "Or just my taste?"
Illya stared into Napoleon's eyes for a moment, burning in their focused heat, his smile gone. "Neither. I admire your taste in family."
Napoleon held his grip for half a beat longer before his hand relaxed. "I choose my family—and my friends—carefully."
Then his hand let go of Illya's arm and moved up to his shoulder, where it settled in an innocuous clasp that still burned Illya like fire. "But I choose my lovers even more wisely—out of love."
"You can't always choose your family," Illya said.
"You seem to have done so," Napoleon returned.
"But after family, you move on to other choices. And if you're lucky, they support you," Illya murmured. "But breaking away can still be ... painful. There may be a period during which it is impossible to love again, until you learn to recognize the impulse in its new guise. Until you can recognize that you are ready again for the great adventure."
"Ah, but what if your family and friend and lover are all the same?" Napoleon had turned back to the mirror, and the quick brown eyes were downcast, watching the fingers carefully fasten the last button of the vest as though they had never encountered a buttonhole before.
"Then there is more to lose—and to win. And the refractory period may still happen, until you recognize the lover has come to the fore."
"And has he?"
Illya cast a quick glance into the mirror. Napoleon's eyes had lifted from their intense scrutiny of the last vest button, and captured his. No fear in the brown gaze, just a composed waiting. Then the gaze blinked and shifted, and Illya saw that Napoleon was nervous under that composed exterior.
He reached out, draping his arm over Napoleon's shoulder, drawing his partner closer, looking at their reflections. Joined, a solid front. For a moment he saw Napoleon's eyes go bleak, just before he reached out with his other arm and pulled Napoleon to him, letting both arms slip around his back, and spoke into Napoleon's shoulder.
"Oh, he has."
There was the briefest hesitation and then he felt Napoleon's arms go around him, tightly, and he smiled in their grasp, feeling the call of home.
Family. Friend. Lover.