by Cord Smithee


As far as I know, these characters belong to Norman Felton and some massive media empire. Any monies should be directed to those people, not me.

Thank you to Kellie M. and Those Who Wished To Remain Unnamed, for reading and answering impertinent questions.

December, 1959

It surprised me to find my new partner asleep by the time I made it back to our hotel room, though it was a blessing. He hadn't undressed (it would have been agonizing if not impossible, with the thick gauze clubbing his injured hands into paws) but just lain atop the bed crosswise, his holster stark against his white shirt, his still-booted feet dangling over the edge and his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes closed, his face as angelic as if an undertaker had arranged it.

It's a pose I've become accustomed to over the years. Then, it was a little unsettling. If I hadn't seen his eyelashes fluttering, I'd have thought he was dead. Especially when I saw the bottle of Chivas on the nightstand, a shotglass improvised from a Dixie cup upended beside it, and another one tipped over the neck of the bottle with the words ns help y'self ik scratched white in the wax on the bottom. The straightened paperclip he must have used to do the scratching lay beside it, a few strands of gauze stuck to it. Easier to straighten the thing with your teeth, push it through the gauze, and scratch a few words than to try to hold a pen in hands like that.

There were about two shots missing from the bottle, which hadn't been reclosed, just covered with the cup, and a vial of medication with a tooth-marked, open lid beside it. I pulled my hands from my pockets and tugged the hem of my suit-jacket down, then picked up the bottle. I. Kuryakan. Methadone 5 mg tablet 48 count every four hours for pain relief. Do not take with alcohol. Sometimes it seems like nobody can spell his name right, let alone pronounce it.

I counted the pills. Forty-seven of them. They rattled as I dumped them back into the vial. My partner stirred, his hands flexing under the bandages, but didn't wake. Careless of him to take a chance like that, but we were in as safe a location as we ever were, and by the time I'd got to him, the palms of his hands had been more blisters than skin. I couldn't blame him; the Bey's men were very good at their jobs. Not a third-degree burn in the lot of them, all on the most sensitive areas of his hands, and none of them deep enough to destroy sensation in the slightest. In his shoes, I probably would have gone for three shots of scotch; the methadone makes you drowsy, but they'd given him a light dose, and without the alcohol it wouldn't have been enough to knock him out.

Yeah, I know, but we all do it when we have to.

And it looked like he'd calculated his mix of opiate to alcohol pretty precisely, so he should be just fine. Still, I thought, the least I could do is make him a little more comfortable.

I kneeled down on the floor and unlaced his boots. His socks were still damp, and his feet had puffed up from the prolonged dangle following the long hike back to UNCLE Istanbul from the satrapy. Besides, the socks stank. I peeled them off and tossed them toward the closet. The red compression lines across the tops of his feet hadn't faded by the time I got back with a damp washcloth, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and the Bond's medicated powder nobody who relies on the health of his feet for survival would leave home without.

He squirmed in his sleep and tried to tug his foot away as I washed between his toes. Reflex made his foot arch sharply when I touched the instep, but he'd thank me in the morning when he didn't have a peeling case of athlete's foot verging on trench-foot to contend with. Besides, I made a point of memorizing all the ticklish places.

Just in case, you understand.

His feet were cold to the touch, blue veins and bones visible through the translucent pale skin. I swung them onto the bed and tucked the coverlet over them. Best to make sure he was warm; if he tried to curl up because he as cold in his sleep he might very well pop the blisters on his palms. They like that; they like to hurt your hands, your feet, your face, your genitals. It's more psychologically damaging than a burn on the torso or a limb.

It was more of a challenge getting the holster and the shirt off him, requiring a certain amount of engineering. His warm body was limp as a rag doll in my hands; undressing him was like undressing a floppy, sleeping five year old, writ large. It was hard getting the shirt off over his bandaged hands, even with the cuffs unbuttoned, and he was going to have a hell of a time keeping the bandages dry while showering. Maybe UNCLE would spot him a pretty nurse to wash his back and tie his tie for him for a week or so.

Unfortunately, I didn't think so.

I did check his pulse and breathing when I had him down to his t-shirt, just to be sure. Both were steady and strong. He stirred against my shoulder when I laid my head on his chest to listen to his heartbeat. A mistake: he smelled of male sweat, rich, a little sour with pain and sickly with the methadone, of scotch and antiseptic and burn cream and the faintest remnants of some warm, earthy cologne or aftershave. And the sharp, unmistakable scent of arousal, as his eyelashes fluttered and colour stained his cheeks and he blindly nuzzled my ear.

I laid him down quickly, composed him against the pillow, swiped colourless hair off his forehead and stepped back before he could turn his face into the touch, still asleep. He looked small on the bed in his white undershirt and indigo blue jeans, both cut close to his body and revealing the trim form underneath.

Thank god he couldn't see the effect he was having on me. Because I could see quite plainly the effect I was having on him, and he had the excuse of being able to dream me into a beautiful blonde.

Well, I didn't have to dream him into one.

I checked to make sure my coat was buttoned, checked to make sure his gun was on the nightstand beside him (not the one with the liquor bottle)--as if he could pull the trigger if he had to--and double-checked the lock on the door before I made my way down to the bar. There had to be some kind of action running to distract me from my other problems.

Istanbul's an odd sort of town. East is east and west is west--but they meet in Turkey. The hotel had a bar--it was a western-style hotel--and it had western-style girls. A green-eyed blonde with ratted hair cut me out of the herd before I really had a chance to sit down, but she had the air of a pay to play sort of an operation, and I wasn't in the mood. I needed a nice girl, maybe French or Italian, maybe a housewife pretending to be an adventuress. Maybe an adventuress pretending to be a housewife. You never can tell, and there's all sorts of girls in the world--soft, squirmy girls who giggle when you kiss their mouths and giggle more when you kiss them elsewhere.

So I ignored the blonde's oblique hint about buying her a drink and turned my back to the bar, elbows shining its watermarked counter-top. Oh, yes. There. The tall brunette on the piano bench in the corner, half-obscured by palm fronds--she was the girl I wanted. I like a career girl; they have confidence.

She played with gusto, belting out There's no business like show business in a throaty alto to a disinterested room. Irving Berlin. Born Israel Baline in Russia, back when it was still Russia. I thought of my Soviet partner curled up in a drug-induced haze two floors up and smiled.

She started in on 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.' Surely it was a sign.

I pushed my way through the palm fronds. She smiled when I came up to her; her teeth told me she was American or fortunate. "Sing 'Cheek to Cheek'?" I asked, and dropped an American dollar into her tip jar.

"How about 'White Christmas?'"

"Will Mr. Berlin call up and try to put a stop to it?"

She smiled wider, twinkling. "I rather like the Elvis Presley version. Even if its composer thought it was indecent."

"It's the hips," I said, and gave her my best Elvis impersonation, which wasn't very good. She laughed. "What's your name?"

"Eloise," she said.

I stuck out my hand, pretending to forget that hers were busy, and did my best blush-and-charm as if I'd suddenly realized it. She laughed again. "I'm Napoleon."

"Pleased to meet you," she said, and played 'White Christmas,' and then played 'Cheek to Cheek.' I brought her a drink and she switched to Cole Porter, and when she got off shift we went for a walk in the moonlit garden, and then she took me upstairs to her room.

She was sweet and soft and willing, and very little was a mystery to her. She washed my back in the shower after we made love, laughed at a slightly better Elvis impersonation complete with soapy forelock and gyrating pelvis, and then pushed me back against the cool tile wall and did beautiful, complicated things to me with her mouth.

I remember her very well.

Illya was awake when I came back to the room, and suffering. I'm not sure if my key in the lock awakened him, or if he had been lying there in darkness beforehand with just that expression on his face, the crease between his brows grooved as deep as if I'd whittled it with a knife. One eye cracked as I entered, the hallway light shining off glassy blue. "I was starting to think you'd decided you didn't want to hear me moan all night, and taken off for greener pastures."

I'd very much like to hear you moan all night, I thought. Which was the problem, of course, and one he needed to remain oblivious too. Women were safe. Women were wonderful. Women were just fucking fine. "Just a quick trip around the world."

He blinked, his eyes still glassy, and said, "I haven't been unconscious that long, Napoleon."

I raised a hand to the wall and flipped on the overhead light. He closed his eyes rather than shading them with his hand. His face was shiny with sweat, white with pain. "Never mind," I said. "Your English is so good--so idiomatic--that sometimes I forget you're not a native speaker."

His strained smile cut me. I'd only known him a month--our third mission--but Waverly's patented partnership-building technique makes you comfortable with somebody after only a couple of days of being chained to him at the wrist. Real comfortable after the required week, between the urges to do murder. It's more awkward when it's a woman, though. Well, frankly, either one can be a bit awkward... for me.

"Slang?" he said, struggling to sit up while using only his elbows to prop himself.

"A euphemism."

"For what?"

Shit. "A—sexual behaviour."

"You picked up a young woman in the bar?" Honest interest, despite the muzziness. He leaned forward a little and scrunched his eyebrows together. Fresh from some perfectly amazing sex, and all I wanted to do was kiss the crease between his eyes until it smoothed. Fuck. I had it bad.


"And this 'around the world,' it is a euphemism for anal sex, Napoleon?"

"No!" I stopped myself mid-exclamation. Actually, that was... logical. Although it shocked me to hear it coming from the mouth of someone I'd considered reserved, perhaps a bit prudish, and...

...probably inexperienced.

"No?" he said mildly, although I could hear the strain under his level tones. They say burns are the most painful injury you can receive. I'll vote them into the top five, anyway. "Then what is it a euphemism for?"

I forced myself to meet his eyes. They were blue, lightly glazed, not blinking as he fixed his frown on me. "For a certain type of oral sex," I said.

The crease between his eyebrows didn't ease. "What type?"

"Illya, it's not gentlemanly to tell—"

He grinned and slumped back against the pillows. "M'not asking you to tell," he said, his voice slurring enough to let me know the pills were still in charge. "Just want the phrase defined."

"It means kissing somebody... all over their body," I answered, surprised by the flat definitiveness of my own voice.

"All over?" he asked.


"Oh," he said. "Useful phrase. Thank you, Napoleon." His eyes closed, the crease between them darkening. "America is so very strange. And I need you—"

"Beg pardon?"

"Forgive my English," he said. "I am not at my best. I need your, your help?"

"Name it," I said.

He smiled, and I could see the pain behind it. "I very much appreciate your tucking me in," he said. "At least, I presume it was you? But there are other matters I must attend to—"

"You need somebody to aim while you pee?" Harsh, but the best I could do when my hands were shaking and my nose filled up with the remembered scent of him.

He laughed. "I'm not too proud to sit down," he said. "But I don't think I can manage the buttons. And I would dearly love my teeth brushed."

He fussed when I tried to get him to take another methadone, so I poured a Dixie cup full of liquor for him and one for me. He held his between gauze-wrapped paws and stared down into it. I tossed mine back as fast as possible. Chivas is vile, but the camaraderie seemed more important than the state of my palate. And, along with Eloise, it might make it possible for me to sleep in the same bed with him tonight instead of staring at the ceiling and wishing he were a woman, so I could make the polite, expected pass, take the rebuff, and get on with my life.

Three drinks later, I got him to take the pill, and then I took the bottle and screwed the cap on, tight. He lay there in his boxers and t-shirt and those bulky bandages and laughed at me when I made him crawl under the covers, but he was asleep before I crossed the room, turned the light off, and came to bed.

I will never know how I kept my hands to myself that night. Especially when he whimpered in his sleep, rolled over, blindly seeking, and relaxed, finally, into drugged slumber with his head pillowed on my shoulder and his leg thrown over my thighs.

Thank god he retreated to his side of the bed before morning, or I would have had some explaining to do.

December, 1964

I didn't fuck men.

Which was why, of course, I was braced against the sink in a dining car men's room, the door barricaded and my pants around my ankles, making a very foolish choice. Which was why my mouth was dry, my heart thudding in my throat, my whole body attuned to the sharp, almost agonizing pressure of an enemy's fingers as, greased with soap, they slid into my far-too-willing body, preparing the way.

This isn't me. But it was, of course. Me, only me, the real me, a mewling little faggot whose hands whitened on the cold porcelain as Satine gave me what I needed, what I couldn't live without no matter how long, how hard I held out against it. He didn't touch my cock, didn't do a thing for my pleasure at all--just slicked me up and took me like the whore I am, querulous, whimpering, pressing into the pleasure he offered and the pleasure I took.

"What would your superiors think of this?" he whispered in my ear, his voice silken and faintly accented.

I pushed back, grunting, the force of his thrusts rocking me up on the balls of my feet. It was the wrong voice, the wrong cadence, destroying the fantasy. The hard hands on my hips should be possessive, not casual, and if it were--

---if it were--

"What would yours?"

Satine laughed and bit my shoulderblade through the shirt, his fingers tightening on my hips. Finally, brutally, one hand squeezed tight on my cock, and I arched into the tormenting pleasure. I closed my eyes, so I couldn't see Satine's face in the mirror over the sink. Stop talking, damn you. "Ahh, Mr. Solo," he said. "They'd be no more sanguine than yours. How fortunate for us that we can recognize an attraction for what it is, no?"

"Fortunate," I answered eyes closed. Illya, I whispered in my head, as he placed the other hand on my shoulders and pushed me down, bent me over, flexed my knees under the downward pressure of his hand. Illya, god, fuck yes, Illya, right there, right there, right there.

I couldn't help but feel a little nauseated at the thought of what I'd done while we were apart, however. Nauseated, and excited. It had been years since I'd let anyone—and I felt like a drunk who's fallen off the wagon after a couple of good years. Like a dog returning to its vomit.

I never would have done that if Illya had been with me. Never would have taken a chance like that on a mission if my partner were there, were close, might find out about it. I could face anything in the world--except his disgust. So I completed the mission alone, split the spoils with Satine, and came home to find Illya waiting for me, recuperating from a knife wound to the forearm and on restricted duty, but also basking in the glow of success.

He was in Waverly's office when I reported for debriefing, perched on one arm of the sofa. I plunked down beside him and leaned my shoulder against his hip. He grinned at me, an expression quickly tamed, but which sent sparks to my groin. I leaned back and crossed my legs, and when the old man wasn't looking, I reached over and ruffled Illya's hair.

He glared at me through his ugly Eastern-bloc glasses, and all was right with the world. I kept telling myself that I had to stop finding excuses to touch him. Especially the hair. I was just making it worse for myself. But he was so hungry for approval, still, even after five years as my partner, nearly eight with UNCLE--I couldn't help it. The way his eyes twinkled when he'd done something clever and he knew I was pleased with him, the hangdog expression when I dressed him down, the way he leaned into the touch when I patted him on the shoulder or the arm--

The way his eyes flashed with annoyance when I leaned over and ruffled his hair. Like a schoolboy with a crush, I loved that I could infuriate him. If I couldn't have him, I had to have his emotional engagement. I loved it, loved that he responded to me that way, that he valued my opinion, my attention that much. That I mattered to him. More than that--he had this manner of total focus, of watching me and being where I needed him to be without being asked that I knew perfectly well was the reason we'd both been promoted--and promoted as a team. I could smell Waverly gloating over it when he glanced over at us between bringing us up to date on current operations. He loves it when his manipulations work, and his uncanny sense for which way the fox will jump is what makes him the man he is.

When he finished with us, Illya informed me that I was joining him for dinner.

It was a mistake, the latest in a long series of mistakes. The biggest one was Satine, of course. I said it was like falling off the wagon; that's true in more ways than one. Crude as the experience was, unsatisfying for more than the few brief minutes of its existence, all it succeeded in doing was doubling the craving. Tripling it.

Which is why dinner with Illya that night was another mistake, and why drinking the wine he kept pouring into my glass was a bigger one. He was looking at me, smiling at me, happier than he had any right to be, and I had a sneaking suspicion I knew why. And I wasn't very happy about it, either--which, coupled with Satine, is why I kept drinking the wine, long past the point of wisdom.

Finally, over dessert--tiramisu for me and black coffee for Illya--I broke. "Quit stringing me along," I said. "Out with it."

"Out with what?" His eyebrow lifted. I looked down at my fork.

"Marion said yes, didn't she? You're far too happy for it to be anything else."

"Oh." He picked up a spoon to fiddle with, and wound up adjusting his ring instead. "No. I didn't ask her."

I'd never seen Illya that serious about a girl. He didn't date around the way I did... but then, he didn't have anything to prove, did he? Nobody ever called him a limp-wristed milquetoast, a nancyboy. Not and lived to tell the tale.

Not that Louis lived either, but I had nothing to do with that. "I thought you were—"

He shrugged. "I decided I didn't want to transfer to the labs. Or section three. And you know how Mr. Waverly feels about married field agents. Besides, can you imagine living with her endless parties?"

"Yes," I said. "I can. So you broke it off?"

He smiled, and my heart skipped a beat. I was looking too long and too directly. I couldn't stop. And he was noticing; I could tell by the tilt of his head, the twist of his lips. "Is there something on my face?"

"No, ah—" I looked down and blushed. "Just studying my prey." And then cursed myself for saying it, because it was all there in my voice, and I knew it. "So. Marion." Too quickly.

He didn't seem to notice. Maybe there is a god. "She got engaged to that producer."


"The one who can't play chess."

"You're better off without her," I said, examining my tiramisu so I didn't get caught staring into his eyes with my heart in my throat.

"I know." He put the spoon down, and stopped playing with the ring. "You and me both."

January, 1965

Something changed on that beach in the moonlight, next to the trunk of that crooked tree. I've never seen him so angry with me. Not irritated, not playing the game, not the gun-crack wit he used to keep people outside of the barbed wire strung around his soul. I'd got inside that somehow; he'd take me as a target of opportunity now, but it was for the humour of it.

No. He was angry. Angry at me. And not from being forced to play the fool, and not from losing this round in the endless game of one-upsmanship we played. And it was funny how I could tell, because his voice was acerbic, a little wry, not raised the way it was when he was venting at somebody. No, he was mad at me, Napoleon. And I could tell because he wouldn't make eye contact, except in little flickering sideways glances, and because he whacked aside every attempt I made to flirt with him as handily as if he'd been using a cricket bat. He didn't engage the dialogue and play the verbal chess game the way he normally would have.

These cuts sounded like he meant them.

It wasn't until much later that I realized two things. The first one was the simple one, for all the logic chain was complicated. It wasn't so much that I'd pulled droit du signeur to get the girl, as that Illya liked this particular girl--this smart, daring, oh-so-innocent child--and didn't consider her suitable grist for the patented Napoleon Solo mill. And so the lipstick on the corner of my mouth pissed him off, because I wasn't living up to his expectation of chivalrous behaviour toward an unworldly woman. And he cared enough about me that my behaviour disappointed him.

The second thing was the simple one, and yet somehow way more complicated. Because I realized that if I missed it when Illya wasn't flirting with me...

...then most of the time, he was.

Nobody understands better than me that flirting is just that. Flirting. Like badminton, it's a game you play for its own merits--because it's fun, and good exercise, and it cheers up a dull afternoon.

Illya doesn't play badminton. Neither does he flirt. He doesn't see the point in games unless you're playing for blood, and as near as I can tell, he never has.

"I'm sorry I made you angry," I said, when we'd placed Susan Callaway safely on a plane to Minneapolis, and were walking back to the parking lot.

"You have not behaved in a manner I find exceptional," Illya answered as he took the car keys away from me and unlocked the passenger-side door.

"Maybe not exceptional, but objectionable."

He shrugged, walking around the car, his limp more evident than usual in the cold. "It may surprise you to know, Napoleon, that in the five years we've been partnered, I've come to understand your... pathology. Somewhat."

I winced, and paused with my hand on the door handle. I forced myself to open the door, sit down, scoot over to unlock the driver's side before he came up on it. He found out about Satine. The sinking sensation in my gut never made it into my voice. Years of training, you understand. "Pathology?"

"Your desire... no, desire in not a strong enough word. Your compulsion to fuck everything marginally presentable in a skirt that wanders across your path, regardless of marital status or moral character, is a classic example of overcompensation." He shut his door very lightly and slid the key into the ignition. "For some time, I suspected it might be, ah, a Napoleonic complex—"

Oddly enough, the little pregnant pause as the engine roared to life and the sideways flicker of his gaze reassured me. He was flirting again, teasing, in that manner that looks like a full-frontal assault until you get to know him. I mugged for it, the class-clown face that's my equivalent of his conversational barbed wire, only less apparent for what it is. "Illya, if you are suggesting inadequacies in my, ah—"

"—but a brief canvas of the secretarial pool set that supposition to rest."

"You didn't." He doesn't look; he's threading us into traffic now. "You didn't."

"In any case, the next logical assumption was a little more sinister."

Oh, shit. "I don't think I want to have this conversation, Illya."

"As you wish." The teasing had dropped out of his voice. He didn't look at me. "But if you ever wish to discuss with me whomever it was who hurt you so badly, Napoleon, I hope you know that I will listen, and I will not judge, and I will carry anything you tell me to my grave."

For a moment I couldn't speak. That is not something that I'm used to. "Ah," I said, when I started breathing again. "Ah. Thank you, Illya. I will remember that."

"If you need to," he said.

"I will." I folded my hands in my lap. "I will."

I'm not sure exactly when I lost track of who saved whom's life more often. We had a running tally on the blackboard in our office for a while, until we started to run out of room for actual case notes and Waverly started making noises about how it made us look unprofessional. As if unprofessional wasn't practically a calling card around here. Only agency I've ever heard of where the night-shift Communications co-ordinator sunbathes on duty. You wouldn't get away with that in the CIA.

Which explains why I don't work for the CIA any more, but that's another story. In any case, the balance of the ride home was spent in silence, while I tried to figure out if our little adventure under the casino had finally put Illya ahead in the standings, or if I was still leading. Illya parked in the garage under our apartment building and we climbed the stairs together. "Goodnight," I said, when we came to my landing.

"Goodnight," he said, and hesitated. I gave him the best smile I could manage and turned away.

I didn't want company tonight. Not his company, anyway. It was too easy to be myself with Illya, too easy to let the defences down and drop the sparkle and just be. And that was no good, because if I wasn't performing, right now, I might be tempted to talk.

And there are some things you just don't talk about. For example, I never asked Illya about his war, and he never asked me about mine. Better than way, easier, and we both knew everything about what the other one had experienced we'd ever need to know. They don't tell you this, but if you've seen one goddamned war, you've seen them goddamned all.

Tolstoy said every happy family is alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Tolstoy, with all due respect to the cultural heritage of my dear partner, is full of goddamned shit. Unhappy families are like wars in that respect.

There was a bottle of gin in the cabinet, sitting beside the scotch. The good scotch, not Chivas. I stared them both in the eye for a moment, and pulled out my little black book instead. Getting drunk wasn't going to help anything; it would just make maudlin if it didn't make me sick.

Getting laid was a better option all around.

December, 1965

Anti-aging serums, killer tigers, twelve-year-olds trained in assassination, guillotines, hot pokers, long trips flown in business class: Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives....

All that, and most amusing part of my day was still Illya watching a thirty-minute melodrama on the tiny black and white TV in the corner of our office during his lunch break, totally engrossed. Especially when we'd just rotten back from a mission, and he was trying to pick up the plot threads from where he'd dropped them two days or two weeks before. He hides the Slavic sentimentality well, but I'm good at my job, and I could see the longing that seemingly frivolous addiction betrayed. Everything that gets done in Russia gets done through a network of relationships: you know a man whose sister in law's stepbrother knows a guy who has an in with a fellow who--

Like that. And there's family drama and gossip and people living ten to a bedroom in shocking poverty and sharing resources every which way, because it's the only way to stay alive... but it's also not uncommon for a party to start on Tuesday night and end the Thursday following, with people wandering in and wandering out, the vodka flowing freely and the food consisting of whatever strange little nibbles people bring by.

It occurs to me, occasionally, that there's a reason Illya hangs out in smoky, stinky, overcrowded, underlit jazz clubs on his off hours. It's not just for the music. And there's a reason why he drops by my apartment unannounced at odd hours and lets himself in and helps himself to my liquor and my food. It's because living alone in a two-bedroom apartment in a New York City high-rise where his rapidly-fading accent marks him as an enemy of the state is a chill, lonely existence for somebody who grew up sleeping three or four to a bed and making do on stone soup and good comradeship. That barbed wire of brusqueness isn't so much to keep people out because he's a loner. It's to keep people out because he knows how few of them he can afford to trust, in America, and how little they'd understand what he needed from them if he did let them in.

Hell, no matter what he says, I bet he was dating Marion as much for the weeklong parties as for Marion herself. Because, let's be honest here; the lights were on, but the clock wasn't wound. If you know what I mean.

She wasn't good enough for him.

He sighed and reached over and flipped the television off as the music swelled over the closing credits. I'm not sure what the hell moved me to ask--maybe my own holiday moodiness--but I did. "You okay?"

"More or less," he said, shoving the waxed paper wrapper of his sandwich into the trash. "How about you?"

"Holiday moodiness."

He glanced sideways in time to catch my grin. His own mouth twisted wryly.

The solution hit me like a brick on the side of the head. "Look, Illya, why don't you take a couple of weeks off and go home for the new year? It's slow. Thrush is all off making plum pudding or something. When was the last time you were home?"

He pursed his lips and glanced at the calendar. "Nineteen sixty-four," he said. "And that was on business. But I did see my parents for about five hours. They even deigned to occupy the same room for much of it. And my sisters—" He pauses. "Two weeks wouldn't be too much?"

"Consider it a thank-you for coming to Terbuf with me."

"That was last year too." But he glanced at the calendar again, longingly, and I patted him on the shoulder, daring a quick squeeze.

"Go. Illya, go."

"What will you do for Christmas?"

I don't go home for the holidays, and he's never asked why. Usually, he comes with me to my aunt's place after the UNCLE party, and we drink eggnog until she gets silly. "I'll take Aunt Amy out to the Ritz dining room for the biggest turkey dinner you ever did see, and make sure she orders two desserts."

He looked from me to the calendar and back to me. His shoulders squared, and he smiled. "I'll leave on the 25th."

"Travelling on Christmas?"

The smile turned into a shrug. "It won't be crowded. Besides, that's not the important holiday, to me."

I dropped him off at the airport early Christmas day and headed back to my apartment, pleased that for once I managed to lie to him and not get caught. The truth was, Amy went back to Minneapolis that Christmas, and tried to persuade me to go with her and make my peace with her sister.

I'd sooner slit my tongue.

Yeah, my family's from Minneapolis. I probably went to high school with Susan Callaway's cousin, if it's the same Callaway family. The irony never stops, does it? Anyway, I was in for Christmas on my own. I could have wrangled a date, or an invitation to dine with a girlfriend's family--but I try not to make gestures to women than can be misinterpreted, and meeting the parents is one of those gestures. So Christmas was me and a brace of Cornish game hens (which are neither game nor from Cornwall) stuffed with figs, Bermuda onions and sage, wild rice because I didn't feel like making potatoes, and apple crumble for dessert.

I threw a good linen tablecloth over the round breakfast table in my kitchen and broke out the silver candlesticks and the good crystal. What the hell--spending a holiday alone is no reason not to celebrate, right? I set two places, one for me and one for the ghosts, and filled both glasses with wine. Beethoven on the stereo--the Moonlight Sonata. Something cheerful and calm.

Somehow, I was into the second bottle of Chardonnay by the time the legs wiggled freely on the miniature birds. Not drunk, but certainly relaxed. Even a little bit tipsy.

Feeling no pain, as they say. Another gross misnomer. The food smelled wonderful as I pulled it from the oven, and I suddenly discovered that I had no appetite at all. I tented foil over the birds to let them rest, poured myself a fifth glass of wine, and wandered into the living room to stand in the window and stare out at the snow falling against the blank grey walls of New York.

There's a problem with that particular recording of Beethoven. The flip side is the Appassionata and the Pastoral. But the one right after the Moonlight is number eight, the Pathétique.

Which was her favourite.

And the last thing in the world I wanted to hear, on Christmas in a lonely apartment, a box in a tower surrounded by six million more boxes in towers just like it. In a couple of those boxes, there were probably people as miserable as I was. More miserable, even; I had food on the table, heat and light, a good glass of wine, beautiful music and a half-finished chess game set up on the board against the wall.

But I still remember what she looked like the night she died. The soft, low-heeled shoes she said let her feel the pedals better, the long smooth panels of her concert skirt puddled on the piano bench, her high-collared blouse crisp and white and a gold circle pin nestled in the hollow of her throat. Her neck was so long, under her piled-up tawny hair She looked like the world's most beautiful prairie schoolmarm. And she played the most beautiful music in the world.

When they pulled her out of the wreckage after the accident, the pin she'd been wearing was melted. She hadn't felt the fire, thank God; she broke her neck on impact. That long, perfect neck like a gazelle's--

I take it back. Maybe I was the most miserable man in New York City. It had been bound to happen sooner or later.

I'm not too proud to say that I set the wine glass down on the stereo cabinet, plugged in the Christmas tree, turned out the lights, and sat down on the sofa and wept. I'd probably still be there, listening to that damned sonata over and over and over again, if I hadn't been startled out of my chair by a crisp, familiar knock on the door.

Now what the hell is he doing here? "Just a second—"

In the kitchen, I grabbed ice out of the wine bucket to cool my eyes, dumped the warm wine from the second glass, refilled it with chilled Chardonnay, and brought it into the living room just as Illya was letting himself in the front door with his key. I took his coat and handed him the wine, and he cocked his head at me. "I'm surprised to find you at home," he said.

"I'm surprised to be found. My plans were cancelled."

"The flight was too." He jerked his chin at the window and took a slow, appreciative sip of the wine. "Snow. If it breaks, I can fly out tomorrow."

"Well, you luck held in one particular. You're just in time for dinner." I retrieved my own glass from the cabinet and led him into the kitchen.

"Smells wonderful. I tried calling your aunt's place from the airport to see if I could catch you before you went to the Ritz, but there was no answer so I came home. I saw your light from the street. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all."

He took in the cooling meal on the counter and the two places set at the table without comment, and set his wine down beside the spot across from my habitual one, as if waiting for me to say something. I didn't, and he cleared his throat and said, "Are you sure you weren't expecting someone?"

"Call it an old superstition," I said. "Setting a place for a traveller. See? It paid off—"

"Your eyes are very red, Napoleon."

"Onions," I said, with a vague wave toward the brown paper sack full of parings in the corner. I sipped my wine, but I wasn't fooling anybody.

"Uhn," he said, and picked up my plate and his. "You cooked. I'll serve. You sit."

I sat, a little dizzy with the wine, and he puttered around my kitchen like he belonged there. He brought me my dinner and topped off my wine before he sat himself. The fork was heavy, silver, cool to the touch when I scratched my thumbnail down it. I still wasn't hungry, but I started dissecting my hen so he wouldn't notice that I wasn't eating.

"Napoleon," he said, and his hand covered mine, "where's Amy?"


"And why are you here?"

"Because I didn't want to see my family."

He sighed and squeezed my hand, and put his own fork down. "Napoleon," he said, and maybe it was the five--no, six glasses of wine, and maybe it was the exhaustion, and maybe it was that he sounded as miserable as I felt...

I told him. "You know my brother Louis was older than I was."

"I've never heard you speak of him, no. But I've seen your personnel file, of course. He was killed in Korea, wasn't he?"

"Training accident, actually," I said, retrieving my hand from his warm, dry grasp and pushing the rice around my plate. "He never made it overseas."

"And then you enlisted two years later, at seventeen. It always seemed a strange thing to me, that you'd enlist when you were likely to be drafted anyway, in a year."

It was amazing, how my throat tightened around the words. I pressed them out anyway. "I would have gone at sixteen if I could have got consent, Illya. Anything to get out of my mother's house. Anything."

I didn't raise my eyes, but I saw him nod, tightly. "Tell me about Louis."

"After Dad split—" I had had far too much wine. I could barely taste it anymore when I tilted the glass to my lips, but it helped the words come out easier. "Louis always thought I was kind of a sissy boy. Limp-wristed, class clown, couldn't hold my own in a fight. And I took Dad leaving hard. Too hard, maybe--maybe it reminded Louis of how unhappy he was, made it hard for him to pretend he didn't care. So he took it upon himself to toughen me up. He said he had to, because we didn't have a father. It was his job."

"Where was your mother while this was going on?"

The tang of wine didn't cover the taste of bile. "I'll get to her later. Anyway--oh, hell, it was boy stuff. You know. Hazing. But when he got into high school, there was--other stuff."

Illya had stopped even pretending to eat. His hand curled around the stem of his wine glass, the opposite number to mine--except I was out of wine, and his was barely touched. "If you do not clarify," he said softly--and somewhere, Louis was very, very glad he was dead and buried and beyond my partner's reach—"then I am going to assume, Napoleon."

"Assume away." Falsely bright, and he knew it, because he reached out as if to grab my wrist and then snatched his hand back. I couldn't blame him for not wanting to touch me.

He took a deep, slow breath. "And then he went away to Korea."

"Yes," I said, unable to believe the words coming out of my own mouth. There are things we just don't talk about. "And I found out where he got the idea from. So you see, when you said I would... would fuck anything, regardless of, of marital status or moral character, you weren't half wrong."

The only time I've seen him whiter was in Istanbul, the time Thrush burned both his palms methodically, with unfiltered cigarettes. He opened the hand that was curled around the wineglass carefully, almost crisply, and let it ball into a fist. The other one was already clenched. He stared at me, and I swear before God that his eyes went grey.

"I'll understand," I said, as carefully as he was moving, "If you don't want to be partnered with me any more. It won't reflect on your record. If you want a transfer to a different field office, I'll get you that, too—"

"Napoleon," he said, so softly I almost didn't recognize my own name, "shut up, won't you?"

I shut up, and watched as he stood, and turned his back on me, and shuffled from the room, tight as a wind-up toy. I closed my eyes in anticipation, and wasn't disappointed; the shattering crash as the front door slammed sounded like it might splinter wood. Beethoven skipped hard, and I winced.

I was gathering myself to stand up and throw the food away when he walked back into the kitchen, prodding a spreading redness on the edge of his left hand with the forefinger of his right, and looked me in the eye. "I apologize for punching your front door. And if the record is scratched, I will replace it."

"Ah," I said, dazzled. "Under the circumstances—"

"Right," he said, and walked into the kitchen far enough to pick up his plate with one hand, the wine glass and one of the candlesticks with the other. "Let's eat in the living room, where we can look at the Christmas tree."

He stood inspecting the Christmas tree as I cleared the plates away, pushing one blown-glass bauble with a forefinger to watch it swing, smiling at the bubbling lights that amuse him so much, every single year.

"When do you have to be back at the airport?"

"Oh six hundred," he said, disgustedly enough that I laughed. I scraped the plates and put them in to soak.

"Want to just stay up? It's already midnight. I'll drive you in tomorrow."

"Sure," he said. He had leaned forward, head twisted to one side, his hands clasped behind his back. "There's a spider on your tree. With a spiderweb."

"Well, don't throw her outside," I said. "She'll just die in the snow."

"They're good luck, you know." He straightened and went to pour two glasses of brandy. "Feel like beating me at chess?"

"Always." I couldn't catch my breath for looking at him. Lucky. I had no right to be so lucky in my choice of friends, the luck of the draw with regard to partners. I was a terrible fool to want more. "Why are they lucky?"

"Spiderwebs? In Kiev, you can get ornaments—" He handed me one glass and pulled a chair out from the chess board "—wire and glass, spiderwebs with spiders, so there is always one on the tree. The fairytale is--you have a game in progress."

"Set it up again."

He shrugged, and started shuffling the pieces into their proper places. I watched his hands move like broad, unerring wings. The bruise on the left one was going to be spectacular. "The fairytale is that there was a poor woman with children, no husband, who could not afford to decorate a tree for her children. So she took some nuts and bits of ribbon and paper and hung them on the tree beside her door, and the spiders took pity on her in the night, and covered the tree with gold and silver webs by morning."

I'd never heard that story before. He told it so matter-of-factly, and it was so damned beautiful it took my breath away. Like him. I caught myself staring, comparing the gold of his hair in candlelight and Christmas-tree light to the shine of dew on spiderwebs at dawn. "And then?"

He looked up at me and caught me with that stupid expression on my face, and studied me for a minute before he smiled. "They weren't poor any more, Napoleon," he said, his eyes sparkling with mischief. "They all lived happily ever after, on borscht and fat pirogies and all the kasha they could eat. All paid for in golden spiderwebs. And that's why spiders are lucky on Christmas trees."


"Yes," he said. He looked down at the board. "You will spot me a bishop?"

"I'll spot you both bishops."

"Excellent," he said, and took them off the board. "Do you know what the funniest thing about that story is?"


The grin was dazzling. "I don't know exactly when the Ukrainians adopted it, but it started off a German fairy tale. And now it is ours. King's pawn to king four."

I stopped drinking after the brandy, because I did have to drive in the morning. Around three in the morning, the snow tapered off. I found myself sitting on the sofa with a glass of Perrier and ice in my hand and Illya dozing against my shoulder, his cobweb hair caught on my holster. I let him sleep, leaning into his warmth, and reached up to brush the strands free.

He stirred and yawned, but didn't pick up his head. His voice was sleepy and sweet, his breath warm on my neck. "I'm sorry. Dinner was delicious, but the food and wine seem to have conspired against me. I apologize for not being a more entertaining guest."

"It's quite all right. I apologize for not being a less lumpy pillow."

"You're a very nice pillow, actually." He sat up, leaving the place where he had been leaning cool and lonely, and turned to face me. "Napoleon, may I ask you a personal question?"

I sipped my Perrier, trying to hide how much I missed the weight of his head on my shoulder. "There's nothing more personal I could tell you, I think."

He reached out and put one warm palm against my cheek, hesitated--as if to see if I would flinch away--and then curled his fingers lightly around the base of my skull. The light in his eyes flickered red and green and blue, all the colours of the Christmas tree. "Is what Louis did to you the reason why you haven't tried to kiss me yet? Because if it is, that's okay. But if there's some other reason, I wish you'd reconsider it."

I stared at him dumbly--his eyes, his lips, the concerned crease between his brows. I thought about it for a good thirty seconds, at least--maybe a minute and a half. I don't know. Time went all strange on me.

And then I leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth.

I meant to make it tender, slow, exploratory. I meant to give him the option of escape. But his mouth opened, his lips wickedly soft and wickedly firm, his tongue teasing mine, his hand tightening as if helplessly in my hair, a little controlling and a little sharp. I moaned into his mouth as he came forward, pressed the bruised hand against my shoulder, and knelt over me, bending my head back against the sofa, and he gave it back generously, a wet needy little sound I never would have believed him capable of.

I waited for the bitterness, the moment of loathing, the echo of Louis' filthy voice calling me filthy names... nothing. Nothing but sweet gratitude at Illya's generosity, nothing but contentment, eagerness, rising desire—it was almost shocking, how clean it felt to kiss him. Faggot, the voice in my head said, experimentally. And something deep in my soul just laughed.

Of course, there's a difference between fucking strangers in bathrooms while you pretend they're someone else, and...

...and making love.

I fumbled for the end table, spilled my glass putting it down, wrapped one arm around his shoulders and buried the other hand in his hair, pushing now. He handed control back as smoothly as he'd taken it, letting me pull his body against mine, squeezing my thighs tight between powerful legs. He moved with me, all grace and strength when I pushed him backward on the couch and laid us both down, my teeth on his neck, my lips against his ear. My stubbled cheek rasped his, and he laughed, and then gasped as I pressed myself against the hot length of his body.

My hands found his waist as his hips flexed against mine, rubbing the mound of his cock against my groin. He pushed hard enough to burn fabric against flesh, hands painful on my shoulders and in my hair, mouth nipping as much as kissing as he turned my head to get at my throat. Love bites followed, savage ones, pushing aside my collar. I laughed with delight when I realized he wanted to mark me. "Yes."

"Yes," he answered, against my skin. "Took you long enough."

"I didn't--mmm--think you'd approve."

Fingers fumbled neckties, buttons, the straps of holsters. He yanked my shirt over my head, unbuttoning the cuffs as an afterthought when he couldn't get it over my hands, and pushed me up with both hands, covering my chest with sharp, sucking kisses that left rows of red hickies blooming in their wake. "Explain that to your girlfriends," he said with satisfaction, when he fell back on his elbows between my flat-spread hands.

"Hah!" I leaned down and bit his neck, hard enough to make him yelp, and sucked like a teenager at the prom until I tasted the harsh metal of blood, pinning his shoulders when he half-heartedly tried to wriggle away. "Explain that to your father."

"Turtlenecks," he said smugly, and flipped me off the couch.

I landed on the bottom, and he made it good, pinning my wrists on either side of my head. My weight advantage wasn't helping all of a sudden, and I didn't care, because he leveraged his weight onto his knees and toes and knuckles and started rocking back and forth, hypnotically, the motion gliding silk boxer shorts against the underside of my cock. His shirt hung off him, half-unbuttoned, his hair in his eyes, his belt-buckle digging into my skin with every stroke. There were going to be bruises on my wrist, too, from the grip of his hand driving my wristwatch into my skin. I panted, trying to surf the rising wave of pleasure rather than let it knock me under, trying to stay in the place where his clutching fingers, his powerful shoulders were exciting instead of terrifying.

"Illya, stop—"

He froze as if I'd flipped a switch, eyes which had been dark with passion brightening startlingly to concern. "Too rough?"

"No." Because it wasn't. I wanted it, wanted the edge, the adrenaline, the challenge--wanted the freedom it gave me. Needed it. Craved it, even. "No. But I want to feel your skin."

"Oh," he said, and kissed me gently, lovingly, and then let go of my wrists and knelt back to fight with my belt while I reached for his shirt cuffs.

Best goddamned Christmas present I've ever unwrapped, even if it was Boxing day by the time I got around to opening it. We made a job of it too; clothes tossed everywhere, Illya's t-shirt hanging off the Christmas tree. I didn't find one of my socks until Easter.

I wasn't exactly looking where I threw it, because by the time I lobbed it away, Illya's savage, biting kisses had become tickling caresses like the brush of butterfly wings, wandering up the inside of both my thighs. His fingers and his hair and his breath, more warmth than I thought I could bear. His hair gleamed with every tint of the coloured lights, softer reflections shimmering on his skin. I turned the strands over in my fingers, my eyes stinging again. "You are so fucking beautiful."

"You're a madman," he said, and bit me softly on the inside of my thigh. I groaned and spread my legs so he could lie between them and wrap them in his arms. "This is an American holiday tradition, is it not?"

His breath tickled. I squirmed. "Sex?"

"Sex under the Christmas tree."

"You know," I said, "come to think of it, it sort of is."

"Good," he said. I hissed between my teeth as he licked the underside of my cock from base to tip, then skinned the foreskin back with his lips and swirled his tongue once around the head. "This is a tradition I could become accustomed to."

His breath was hot, so hot, the skin of his face rough and perfect as he rubbed it against me. "Don't stop," I whispered, and he laughed low in his throat, hitched his body up on his elbows, keeping his deathgrip on my thighs, and nuzzled my balls.

"Good," he said, when I thrust helplessly into the cool air, his hair like silk brushing my shaft. His lips found me again, his mouth warm and deep and sweet, and whatever I was going to say vanished in a whispered whine as he pinned my hips to the floor and let me knot my hands in his hair. And then it was tightness, and flickering heat, and the astounding rolling pressure, the teasing sparkle of his tongue, the transient brush of teeth. Dark-bright flashes like the afterimages of exploding shells lit my vision. He pulled my hips off the floor, manhandled me with ease, squeezed hard and purred encouragement as I pulled his hair and tried not to shout so loudly the neighbours would hear. What came out at last was his name, distorted through gritted teeth, a low moan of passion and need as he held me there and I spent myself into his mouth.

It wasn't so much that the world went red and black as that my eyes were closed so tight it might as well have. I lay still, gasping, let go of the hair I'd somehow not quite torn out of his scalp, and pressed both fists against my mouth. "Christ."

"He 'split' when the wine ran out," he said. "This may sting a little." Softly, he began sucking the inside of my thigh.

"What are you doing?"

"Signing my name."

"In English, or in Russian?"

"It's longer in English," he said, and then he laughed and crawled the length of my body to kiss me again. His cock pressed stickily between us, his hips rocking slow and hard--harder when I squeezed his perfect ass in both hands, tight enough to dimple firm flesh. I hooked my heels over his calves and pulled him close, my calluses catching on the fine skin of his back as we kissed each other's faces, ears, throats.

He was hesitating, I realized. Waiting for me to take back the lead, shivering with anticipation, his kisses gentle now despite the restrained savagery rocking his hips. I turned into his shoulder, licked sweat from his throat. He tilted his head aside and leaned into the caress. His turn to moan then, a sound that trailed off into a whispering sigh.

I put both hands on his shoulders and pushed him away, turned him bodily, drew him back against my chest as I leaned against the sofa. He settled between my legs, his skin slippery with sweat despite the chill, and threw his head back on my shoulder, turning to kiss my throat, awkwardly, and the bony edge of my jaw.

I didn't trust those teeth, and slipped one arm around his waist, hand flat on the firm muscle of his abdomen. The other I pressed against his mouth, curving around his jaw as he sucked and nibbled the side of my finger. The bruise I'd left on his neck was purpling already. He moaned into my palm as I dipped my head and set about making a matching one in the sensitive dimple where his neck ran into his shoulder.

He squirmed against me, relaxed into my embrace with absolute trust, his breath coming arhythmically as I stroked his stomach and ran a thumb around one tight nipple. His eyes were open, his left hand caressing my thigh, his right hand coming up to cover mine as it explored his body. There was the scar on his thigh, still angry red and shiny, of a badly infected knife wound. He shivered when I paid it particular attention, and turned his head and rubbed his cheek against an older scar of mine, a bullet wound on my left shoulder. "Don't think about it," he said. "It comes with the territory."

"I know," I said, fighting back a sudden urge to say something stupid and sentimental, like 'if I die, you promise me you'll find somebody else.'

Because of course he would promise, and he'd laugh at me, but he wouldn't really mean it. And later, when it did happen, he'd hate himself for making the promise, and hate himself for breaking it. Don't ask me how I know.

Instead, I kissed his neck again, and the strength of his shoulder, and pulled him tight against my chest with my left hand while the right one wandered lower. His hand still rested over mine, following rather than guiding, and he gave himself up to me like a cat rubbing itself into a caress. He hooked his heels over my ankles, giving himself something to brace against, and strained back into my arms, his spine arching as I stroked his balls, bit his neck, wrapped my hand around his cock.

He watched avidly as I stroked him, slowly at first, wanting to memorize everything about him--the texture of his skin, the smell of shampoo and white wine and brandy and sage, the way his breathing caught between his teeth as I firmed my grip and picked up the pace. "You're beautiful," I told him again, firmly, now that he was in no position to argue. He moaned in response, his hand tightening under the curve of my thigh, his calf muscles straining, shivering as he dug in his heels and pushed himself against me, the muscles of his ass slippery with sweat against my reawakening cock. I pulled him tighter, harder, unafraid to use my strength as the force of his rocking hips thrust me back against the sofa, the rug prickling my ass and the underside of my balls.

His breathing changed, deep, harsh breaths folding into quick, light panting, and I felt him tense and shiver, a hard-bitten moan locked behind his teeth and his eyes finally fluttering shut and he pressed himself into my hand, his shoulders hard against my chest, his head thrown back in complete abandon. God, beautiful. So beautiful, and I didn't want to be done with him yet. Not when we still had a good hour before he'd be late for his plane.

I shifted my grip, lightened my touch, slid my left hand down his stomach to cup his balls and squeeze them gently, gently, tugging them away from his body as he flexed in my arms, a study in tension. The moan turned into a harsh, rising whine, and he slumped back against me, shivering, breathing like a spent race-horse.

"Asshole," he said against my ear, in Russian, his right hand locked on my wrist like a manacle. I kept at it, touching him, stroking him slowly now, gentling him back down so I could wind him up again. "You've murdered me."

"Mmmm." He shivered when I rubbed my thumb across the head of his cock, slippery with the slow seep of pre-ejaculate. "What if I said I was prepared to make it up to you?" Slowly, slowly, as his deathgrip on my wrist relaxed and his hips began to rock again, in time to my touches.

"That depends on the forfeit." His voice was sleepy, but the cool calculation in his eyes was not. He spoke in English again.

I lipped the edge of his ear to feel him press himself into my arms again. "If I asked you, Illya..."

"Yes?" Bright anticipation in his voice as he nuzzled my shoulder, absently. I wondered if he could feel me shivering, too.

"...would you fuck me? Please?"

He stilled in my arms, half-disengaged, and turned to look me in the eye. "Napoleon—"


Somehow, my eyes had got closed. I held my breath, and listened to his roll in and out once, twice, a third time. "I'd be delighted," he said, and tilted my head back so he could kneel up and kiss me on the mouth.

I don't know how he knew what I needed, so easily, so completely. He kissed me up onto the couch and ran his fingers through my hair, over my chest, stomach, and thighs, caressing, memorizing. And then he smiled and stood and pressed a finger to my lips--wait there--and prowled toward the bathroom, the Christmas lights painting his golden body in a dozen colours, his cock so hard it barely bobbed with his stride.

I could watch him walk around naked all day.

I was grateful he knew his way around my apartment, because he was back quickly, a bottle of massage oil and a towel in his hand. He knelt by the edge of the couch, between my knees, and spread the towel out, then took my hips in his hands and tugged me closer. His hands shook when he opened the oil and spread it on his fingers, his cock, between the cheeks of my ass. He touched me deftly, lightly. The oil was warm on my skin, growing warmer. It smelled of wintergreen, and it tingled when he pressed one finger into my body.

I knew how to relax and take it, but I'd never had anyone be so carefully sure before, one smooth touch after another, gentle even when his breath caught with eagerness. It hurt to watch him. I couldn't look away from the careful motions of his hands, the irritated puff of breath to blow his hair out of his eyes.

"Enough," I said, finally, and caught his wrist the way he'd caught mine. "Illya, I'm ready."

"You've waited this long," he said grumpily, but he couldn't hide the quick flicker of a smile as he wiped his hands on the towel and then took hold of my hips again. I lifted my legs, pulled them up, and draped my knees over his shoulders as he blew the hair out of his eyes one more time. And then he looked at me--really looked at me, that total, terrifying, narrow-eyed focus that can turn you around on the street from a block's distance when he aims it at the back of your neck--and rocked his hips forward slowly, with absolute control.

Perfect. Sharp and sweet and heady, the burning warmth of him coming into me intensified by the oil, his hands holding me steady and mine locked on his forearms, hard as twisted steel, pulling myself onto his cock. His balls brushed my ass, his hands clutching so hard they must be leaving fingerprints, his breathing focused, artificially deep and slow. He made a sound in his throat I couldn't name, not a growl and not a whimper, but something in between, and leaned forward, all his weight on me, bowing my legs and curving my spine.

"God, Illya," I said--said it out loud, and watched the corner of his mouth flicker upwards, a smile of unbearably transient sweetness. I had to stroke my palms over his hands once, feel the bones and sweat and skin, before I could believe it was real. "Yes." I heard my own voice say it, a flat statement of fact, and liked how it sounded so much I said it again. "Yes, dammit."

"Good," he said, and tossed his head back like a stag, flicking the hair off his forehead, and rocked his hips against me almost violently.

There was nothing gentle about the rhythm he set, nothing considerate, nothing easy. He moved, was all, and expected me to keep up with him, his hands on my cock, his eyes on my face, his hips moving with the same brusque, vicious inevitability with which he did everything. His sweat dripped onto my chest, his breath caught hard in his throat, the only sounds were the grunts we made with every thrust and the slap of flesh on flesh. His callused hand rubbed rough on tender flesh, and after he dove forward to kiss me again he sank his teeth into my shoulder. I returned the favour, scraped my nails hard down his back, howled when he dragged my orgasm out of me, come dripping slick and ropy between his fingers, spattering across my chest.

He laughed like the Devil himself and ducked his head, licked sweat and semen off my chest, and then he let my legs slide down, pushed his arms under my body and hooked his hands over my shoulders, pulled me into him with all the wiry strength in his body, and proved just how much he'd been holding back while I snarled like a cat and fisted both hands in his hair. When he came, he collapsed against me, sobbing, and I couldn't tell if the wetness on my throat was sweat or tears.

It was raw and beautiful and vulgar and savage, sharp as the marks of my teeth on his skin. Sheerest. Fucking. Poetry.

If you happen to like Ginsberg better than Wordsworth, say.

January, 1966

He didn't say a word in the shower, mumbled only politenesses as we dressed, afterwards, and I walked him upstairs to pick up his suitcase before I took him to the airport. There wasn't an inch of me that didn't ache, and there wasn't an inch of me that cared. Especially when he paused before walking out the door, and shot me that shy look from under slightly damp bangs, and then smiled like a flicked-on lamp when I ducked down and kissed him on the cheek.

I smiled back. We'd done all the talking we needed to do.

Fine words then, but two weeks later when I went to JFK to get him, I'd had time to get scared. He didn't see me at first; I had time to look him up and down, see him rested and maybe a few pounds heavier, as if his mother had made an effort at feeding him up. And feeding him up is an effort--I've shared enough beds with him to know that he converts calories to body heat at a satisfyingly toasty rate. The crease between his eyebrows had softened, and--a freakish occurrence--his shoulders looked almost relaxed.

Going home was good for him. Maybe better than being with me. And his home was someplace I couldn't follow, the world being what it is.

I had just enough time to start to worry when his eyes found me, and his face lit up with transparent joy. He made a beeline for me, grinning, and dropped his suitcase at my feet. "I brought you something."

We never exchanged presents on holidays. I didn't even know when his birthday was, I realized, although I knew it was in his file. So the flat box the size of his palm that he held out came as a shock. "Is it safe to open this in public?"

"I hope so," he said. "I got it through customs."

The box was cardboard, undyed, inexpensive. I opened it with as little ceremony as he'd shown in handing it to me, and summarily lost my voice. It held a blown-glass and silver wire bauble, an exquisite thing about three inches in diameter--a stylized spider on an intricately rendered spiderweb.

"For your tree," he said, when I looked up at him, dumbfounded.

"Illya—" Nope. Still no voice to speak of, and nothing to say if I had one.

He looked me dead in the eyes, smiled sweetly, and picked up his suitcase. "I thought it could be lucky for both of us. Come on; let's get a hamburger. I'm so fed up on borscht that if you pricked me I'd bleed beetjuice."

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