At the Crossroads

by ChannelD




That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.

This story is an homage to Howard Phillip Lovecraft and done with only the greatest respect and admiration.

Illya cowered, naked, against the back of the big hollow tree he had crawled into. Although when he wrote his report ... oh, the sanity of writing his report in the stark clarity of UNCLE headquarters ... he wouldn't use the word `cowered'. It didn't sound very agent like. `Crouched'. That was better. "I crouched in the hollow tree," he would type, while sitting at his desk, "and then" ... a shriek from the woods outside his - what? Refuge? Trap? Coffin? ... made him shudder and press harder against the back of the tree. More shrieks, terrible shrieks, came and he clapped both hands over his ears in a vain attempt to shut them out. Now other sounds could be heard - undergrowth being torn and trampled, trees groaning as they were shoved aside - or down, as a rending crash reached his ears. He shifted position, bracing himself so if his tree went down next he could go with it, stay wedged inside rather than tumble out like candy shaken from a box. Why candy? Why had his mind picked that particular image? Because candy was for eating; and in this mad place he had come to, so was he.

It had started out so normally. Thrush was buying large quantities of a certain mineral, as well as stores of radioactive equipment. X-ray machines, Cat Scan machines, dental machines, old fluoroscopes from long defunct shoe stores - it didn't seem to matter what specifically it was, which was why it had taken UNCLE so long to put the pieces together. There were also reports that Thrush was buying and stealing certain old books - very old books, filled with incantations, spells, and drawings. Illya and Napoleon had seen copies of some, and Napoleon had laughed, while Illya had made the sign against the evil eye, which had made Napoleon laugh all the more. Napoleon had laughed, and so had Illya, but maybe it had worked after all because Illya was still alive, and the Thrush agents he had followed in here - wherever here was - were dead. He shivered on remembering those deaths, and once he started shivering he couldn't stop. He drew his knees up to his chin, wrapped his arms around them, put his head down, and shook.

A drilling scream came from outside his refuge but close - too close. He clamped both hands over his mouth to stifle his answering scream, and into the ensuing silence came a sound, an indescribable sound. It was part vocalization, part liquid roiling in some awful - he was biting his hands now to keep quiet, because if he drew that attention to him ... he didn't want to see what would make such a sound. Where was he? How ... how could any of this be real?

Maybe it wasn't. Maybe he had just suffered some sort of psychotic break. How wonderful that would be. How wonderful, if he was in fact sitting in a secure hospital room, drugged to the nines, behind locked doors, and barred windows. How wonderful. He let himself bask in that image, and it was probably so, wasn't it? Because otherwise ... he made himself see it, see the narrow cot, the padded walls. Made himself feel the straitjacket, the straps. He concentrated on it, focused in on it, and when he was fully convinced of its reality he opened his eyes so he could see it.

A thick tentacle, covered with great tooth rimmed mouths, lay across and partially inside the tree. It was pulsing to some abnormal rhythm, and the mouths opened and closed, opened and closed.

If Illya could have screamed, he would have. He tried, throat working, mouth opening behind his hands, which had loosened with the shock. But he couldn't scream, and that was a good thing, wasn't it. It was a good thing he couldn't scream - hadn't screamed yet. Not since that plunge from there, to here.

He had been by Napoleon's side, as always, when they entered the Thrush lab. They had followed the sound of chanting, ululations, and cries; and a great pounding which rose and fell, rose and fell, echoing through the empty corridors. There had been men chanting outside the lab, too - a small group of scientists from some university neither man had ever heard of. It was these men who had contacted UNCLE originally, about the disappearing books. They had called again today, urgently, requesting assistance. "We can't get inside! If you can get us in before the time, we can save the earth!" Then the communication had broken off. So Illya and Napoleon had come - to save the world once again, Napoleon had joked in the car.

University of Arkham, that was it. Some of the stolen books had come from there, and the school had been desperately eager to get them back. He and Napoleon had wondered about that eagerness. They had wondered, too, at the professors' presence at the lab, had been bemused by the chanting. Napoleon had shot him a look that clearly expressed his opinion, and he himself had ... had laughed! Oh, not out loud, but his snort had conveyed laughter, and Napoleon had grinned. Well, he wasn't laughing now.

The laughter had ended quickly then, too. Because once they blew the front doors and entered, they saw a table, and a woman was tied to it. She was dead - eviscerated. And in the open air amphitheater beyond that was a veritable army of Thrush agents - heavily armed Thrush agents. Both men had halted, staring. Because this army was also chanting. Illya had had time to wonder how he could still hear the scientists, over the roar of this multitude, but he could. Then the ... the door, the gate, the ... portal, had opened.

In place of the clear blue sky there was a churning, seething mass of shapes that had no shape, and colors that had no relationship to any colors Illya had ever seen before. While he gaped as if witless, the chanting had swelled, and there was triumph in it. Thrush was calling something out of the void, and it was coming. Napoleon was shouting now too, and how could he have heard that at all?

Then - oh, then a face appeared at the juncture of world and void - a huge, hideous face, with tentacles where a mouth should be and one colossal eye in which smaller organisms swam and looked. The Thrush army screamed as one and tried to scatter, but they were too closely packed together. A huge suction seemed to pull them up, pull them in, screaming and struggling in mid air now, and were they flying, or falling, or ... then Illya's own feet were pulled from under him and it was falling, he was falling upward and screaming. Napoleon screamed too, screamed his name, then, just like that, Illya was through the portal and flying - flying after all - slamming into first a hard vertical surface and then the ground. He had struck a cliff, he could see, and fallen at its base. He pressed against it.

The behemoth before him was snatching bodies from the air with great squid like arms, and stuffing them down the maw which had opened in its face. Other men were running and screaming, and at the sounds and sights all around him Illya's body convulsed, and emptied itself completely - bowels, bladder, stomach and everything. He was even pouring sweat. It was as if his body had gone mad, instead of his mind. His mind persisted in sanity.

He had remained absolutely still, despite a strong desire to leave the residue of his sickness behind him. For the moment it was the running, screaming men who were being pursued. The woods - and they were woods, unearthly woods full of grotesque trees and bushes and rocks - were alive with horrors. He couldn't even name the shapes he saw, but they were all hungry. It was a feeding frenzy with men being grabbed and pulled apart, men exploding and their viscera sucked into mouths attached to bodies he couldn't see - or that seeing, could not understand. His own stench rose up to his nostrils, and he wriggled out of his befouled clothes, leaving them in a heap as he began to move backwards, to move away, but carefully. Silently. He had covered about ten feet when the wall at his back moved, moved and stood up, up, towering over him. That was when he ran.

He ran, looking over his shoulder to see his discarded clothes rise in the air and disappear into a mouth, which had appeared on the formerly featureless surface. The die was cast now, he was running so he ran faster but not screaming, no, he wouldn't scream. A wet popping sound made him jump - straight up. He had a mental picture of himself mid air, naked, legs still circling like a cartoon figure, then a wave of wet sloppy stench hit him, knocked him down. He rolled and kept moving, dragging himself on his belly now. His head struck something, so he wiped at his eyes to clear them, and saw a tree. Saw this tree, and the hole in its trunk. He crawled inside, crawled until he was up against the back, and stopped. Stopped, and fainted. Although he wouldn't say fainted, in the report he would type at UNCLE headquarters. He would say `passed out', or `became unconscious'.

Now he stared at the tentacle, fascinated. It changed color as it lay there, in a strange rhythm, and none of the colors had any names that he knew of, any corollaries to the real world. But this was real, wasn't it. If he wasn't mad, this was real. And ... his mind wouldn't go further. Then the tentacle whipped back out, and a hideous gurgling came to his ears. He covered them. But he still could see the tentacle, see its mouths eating something; eating so greedily that flecks of whatever nourishment it had found flew into the tree with him. They were still moving. Then another mouth - was everything here just a mouth, and appendages containing yet more mouths? - opened in the tree trunk itself, right beside him. A long tongue came out, curled around one of the moving flecks, and sucked it back inside. The mouth closed.

The `tree' he was inside was as hungry as everything else. His mind seemed to waver, then to crack. He was one breath away from such total madness that he would run, run, and scream, and be devoured; like all the other running screaming men. Illya's sanity shook and then set. Set solid. He would not go mad. He refused to go mad. He would .. he would think. He would sit here, still as death, and think.

Right here and right now, he had to decide. He could bounce forever between the two poles - real, not real. If he was indeed already mad, if he was indeed in that psychiatric ward, then he was at least safe. No action was required of him. But if this was real, if he was sane and this was real, then he had to escape; preferably with his mind intact. He had to ... what? Well, the only way out that he was aware of lay back the way he had come. The portal. Was it still open? He hoped so; oh, how he hoped so ... but then couldn't other things escape just as he wanted to? Thrush - had Thrush planned to loose this horror on the world? To what end? They must have thought they could control this, with their army and their weapons, but by now they knew they were wrong.

Those other scientists would be trying to close this portal and of course they were right, of course it should be closed. Was it so wrong to hope there was time for him to get back first? Wrong or not, he did hope so. Was it wrong to hope for rescue? What if he could see Napoleon right now, in some sort of protective gear, carrying some sort of effective weapon, coming to save him? He wanted that so badly that a great sob burst from him, despite the hands over his mouth, despite his best intentions. A sound - a human sound! He tightened his hands, staring all about in horror, horror at himself, at this betrayal of his own life. The tentacle slithered back into the tree, all the mouths open, and changing color more rapidly. A mouth opened in the tree trunk, right beside him.

He wouldn't scream, he wouldn't move, he wouldn't. Fight or flight - both useless. Freeze. Don't move, don't breathe. The tentacle poked inquiringly at the tree trunk, the tree trunk snapped at the tentacle. The tentacle withdrew, the tree mouth closed.

Why was he still alive? Why wasn't he already fodder for these monsters? He tried to think about that. True he wasn't moving, he wasn't running and screaming, but that alone wouldn't be enough to save him. His clothes hadn't been running or screaming but they had been eaten. Eaten ... and spit out. Because they weren't food, although they must have smelled like food because they were smeared with his body's waste. Whereas he ... now he smelled like them! He was slick with what had spewed from the creature who had mistaken his garments for food. Was that it? It made sense ... as much sense as anything else. He was literally sitting in the maw of one of the beasts, and it didn't recognize him. Was there any hope in that? Could that scent cover him while he made his way back to the portal? Back to Napoleon? Because Napoleon would have a plan. He would be working from his end, to rescue Illya as so many times before. They would work together, and they would ... surely they would ... save the world.




Napoleon was listening to the scientists. Most of them were still chanting, but three of them were arguing among themselves, and he was listening to them. They wanted to close the portal and he could understand that, but Illya - Illya was in there. He wanted to leap through, to rescue Illya, but ... oh, God forgive him, he was afraid. Twice he had moved towards it, and twice the sounds and smells had driven him back.

Now things seemed to have attained some sort of stasis. The portal was smaller than it had been, but despite their chants and gestures they were not succeeding in closing it. The hideous face had not returned, and nothing could be seen besides that terrible light that had no name. Things could be heard, though - growls and screams and sucking and chewing and ...just trying to sort them out made his head hurt. He clutched at it, trying to hold it together, trying to keep himself sane.

His sanity had suffered a serious blow when Illya had gone through there, literally in the air, screaming and then gone. Napoleon couldn't even move. He had tried to run, tried to reach for his partner but his body refused to obey him. Hell no, he could almost hear his brain stem tell the rest of him. Hell, no.

"If we could blow up this building, right here at the source, that might close it for good," one man said, and Napoleon cried out, even as another man snapped back.

"And it might not! Then what?"

"No! My partner's in there, Illya's in there! We have to get him out before you close it!"

They looked at him for the first time. "Who are you?" one man demanded. "Are you with them?" He gestured towards the blasted area where a Thrush army had been.

"No! No," he repeated, forcing himself to be calm - or calmer, at least. "We are from UNCLE. We came in response to your call. Illya was trying to help. He was ... we can't just leave him there!"

"Anybody who went through that portal is dead. Don't you hear them?"

Yes, he heard them. But Illya wasn't dead. "Illya is alive. I know it."

Another scientist snorted. "If by some miracle he is still alive, he's hopelessly insane by now. No one..."

"How?" the other man interrupted. "How do you know it?"

It wasn't a rhetorical question. The man ... Dr. Rowe, according to his nametag ... really wanted to know. "I feel it," Napoleon said, hearing it as it came out, how lame it sounded. "I feel ... I feel him. He's my partner," he added feebly. It wasn't much of an explanation, but it was all he had.

"Partners?" Dr. Rowe repeated and something in his voice made Napoleon bristle. It wasn't the first time he had - they both had - heard it, but it always pissed him off. He and Illya never spoke of any of it - the rumors, or the undeniable attraction between them. They were field partners, and anything else would be a dangerous distraction. It irritated him that people didn't believe them, when it was so simple.

"Not like that. We're not queer for each other - or maybe we are." Because he wouldn't deny Illya now, not here and now. "But that isn't the point. You called UNCLE. And UNCLE sent us. We came to help. Now Illya needs help. We are going to help him, if at all possible." Again he moved towards the portal, again he retreated when a particularly harrowing and unidentifiable sound came though. "What a fucking coward I am," he said brokenly. "God forgive me."

"Take this," Dr. Rowe said. He handed Napoleon a large piece of rock, which was studded with strange crystalline protrusions. Napoleon took it, and almost dropped it when it quivered between his hands. "Now think about your partner. With a channel inside we still might be able to stop this, and save him. Think!"

Doubtfully, Napoleon held the rock and thought. He thought about Illya, about his face and his voice; his body, so strong and capable and beautiful. He thought about that razor sharp mind, that quizzical smile, that wicked sense of humor. He thought ... and suddenly he saw. He saw!

He saw Illya, naked and covered with some hideous slop. He saw Illya's eyes, filled with terror but still ... still sane. Illya wasn't dead, and he was sane. He was trapped and afraid in a universe gone mad, but he was still thinking. And then there was contact. "Illya!"

"Napoleon! Napoleon Napoleon save me! Help me please, Napoleon, get me out of here!" It was a barrage of such raw emotional voltage that he was thrown back, thrown away. He was sitting on the floor, clutching the rock, watching the crystals, alive with color now, vibrating and throbbing. And faintly, distantly, came Illya's cry of loss. "Napoleon!"

"I'm coming!" he shouted. He tucked the rock under one arm, put his other hand out and ran towards the portal. He wouldn't stop this time, nothing would stop him from answering that call. "Illya! I'm coming!"

But he was stopped. Two of the scientists tackled him, brought him down and at the same time Illya cried out, voice high and thin with horror, "No! No no Napoleon, don't come through! I didn't mean ..." and then there was nothing. The crystal had bounced out of Napoleon's arms, and there was nothing.

It was Napoleon who lost his mind, then. He fought them, he shouted, he cursed. Then someone slapped him across the face, hard, jarringly hard, and he dropped back into himself. He fell back into Napoleon Solo, UNCLE agent, and that man wouldn't fight these scientists who were... he had to acknowledge it ... trying to save the world. That man wouldn't shout incoherent words, he wouldn't weep. Instead that man, Napoleon Solo, would ... he would fix this. He would save Illya, he would save the world. "All right," he said harshly. "I'm all right. What now? You said someone on the inside could help. Well, he's inside. He'll help, if we tell him how."

"Call him back to the portal." No further explanation, no promises. But some plan was better than no plan, so Napoleon took the crystal, and reached out again.

"Illya."

"Napoleon," and there was no terror now. Each man knew, and each knew that the other knew, that if these were their last moments - seconds - together, then those seconds would have to count for it all. They were together now, this moment. And in this moment there was calm, and quiet, and a perfect tranquility.

Illya's mind touched his, and they were one. One, and together. In that moment, in that place, Napoleon said, "Illya. My love. Come to me. To me, Illya. Come to me, my love."

"Lyubimaya moy. I'm coming." There was perfect communion, perfect understanding, perfect love, and then it was gone. Napoleon was still sitting on the floor, still holding the rock, but the crystals were dark and the only evidence that anything at all had happened was the stinging on his face where he had been struck.

"He's coming," he said, and what an enormous effort words were, how cumbersome, compared to that perfect joining. "If he can," he added, because the enormous perils of moving at all had been clear, too.

"Are you out of your mind?" another man - a Dr. Repass - demanded. "We don't have time to wait for him! We have to close the portal now!"

"Well, we're not making much progress, are we?" Dr. Rowe answered wearily. They all looked weary, and afraid. "If we have a channel of communication inside there, the spells will be far more potent. You." Addressing Napoleon now. "You need to be close enough to see in, but without risking being pulled across. Hurry. We'll make a human chain. We won't have much time."




Come to me, Napoleon had said. Illya pushed aside the question of exactly how the command had come. If he was accepting this place as reality, then surely he wasn't going to balk at a little telepathy between friends. Essentially, he had been told - ordered - to report to Napoleon. Illya Kuryakin, Number Two Section Two, had been given an order by his CEA. So Illya Kuryakin was going to obey said order. And he was going to obey it like an agent, like Napoleon's partner. He would stand upright, and he would carefully - oh, so very carefully - make his way to the portal, because where else could he expect to find Napoleon? He would make his calm, professional way back.

It was hard to stand up. It was very hard but he did it, coming to his feet, fists clenched, teeth clamped shut on any screams that might try to escape. He took the two steps to the hole in the tree trunk and slipped through it, moved cautiously away from the tree that wasn't a tree at all, that was a monster like everything else here; that was hungry, like everything else here.

He wanted to remain rational - more, wanted to behave like an agent - so he tried not to look too closely at anything around him. He focused on moving as smoothly and silently as he could, like ... air, he thought. I must flow like air. Air isn't food. So he used his training, used his own natural grace, used his very fear to keep himself silent, and uninteresting. Shrieks and wails sounded all around him, but he didn't trust that as cover, didn't make a sound that could be avoided. After a while it felt as if his body were moving on its own, moving with no help from his mind, or his will. Fear moved him, fear lifted his feet and set them down again, fear kept a silencing hand on his breathing and his heartbeat. He breathed fear in and out, moved and lived and had his being in fear. He had never known such fear.

He thought about that, because it was better than thinking about what was causing it. He would have thought that such great fear would preclude action, but instead it seemed to insist on action, insist on moving forward, towards ... what? Safety? Was there such a thing as safety? Illya trembled with his desire for safety, and had to stop moving while the tremors went through his body and then left it. A stomping, rustling sound came from behind him, and the fear moved him on again. His mind sat above it, in the tiny space left in his consciousness by the fear. His mind worried and picked at his surroundings, wanting to believe that he was mad. The fear knew perfectly well that this was real, that this was happening, that he was in more than mortal danger. Illya hoped the fear knew where it was taking him, because his mind certainly didn't. Where was the portal? He could be walking away from it, for all he knew. It could be closed. It was surely guarded by more monstrous beings, there to keep him in, and to capture and eat whatever might fall through, willy nilly, screaming and falling and dying.

The fear increased, forcing his brain, his thoughts, into a yet smaller space. Good. He didn't trust his thoughts. He trusted the fear. He let the fear move him and after some time -an hour? A millennium? He couldn't tell. It could be either, or, in this place, it could be both. Or neither. He could be trapped in the space between one second and the next, forever and ever, world without end. Or he could have been walking for a thousand years, walking towards a future in which Napoleon was long dead, UNCLE itself gone, humanity extinct.

Another noise from behind made his heart leap in his chest. It was close - so close. He froze. It was a huge cracking slithering ... oh, stop, he thought at his brain. Why did it persist in trying to assign words to the unnamable? He was standing still because the fear had locked his limbs. The fear wasn't moving him forward anymore, it was holding him motionless. So he would remain motionless. He couldn't trust his mind, so he would trust the fear. More sounds, moving off at an angle from behind him. He hadn't been seen. He hadn't been heard. He was still awash in ... in whatever fluids had spewed over him, so he hadn't been smelled ... or tasted, or whatever senses these things had. He didn't dare turn his head. If he saw what was behind him, if he saw what was making those sounds, he might break. He might break and scream and run, and then he would be eaten. Or worse. Worse than death lay here. It would not be a matter of enduring a few moments of terrible pain before oblivion. There would be no oblivion. His consciousness would remain here, screaming and dying forever. Those thoughts almost broke his paralysis, and he almost jolted forward, but the fear was stronger than his thoughts, and he didn't. But then another noise came, a huge, monstrous, wet noise and he turned his head after all, he couldn't help it. He turned.

A huge mountainous shape, seeming to be at once a cloud, and a solid being, approached - or did it retreat? Was it motionless, and the world caught in its gravitational pull? . Illya couldn't give it any kind of a label, but his mind began throwing adjectives and nouns around wildly anyway as it tried to make sense of what his eyes were undeniably seeing. Dark clouds, tentacles, mouths, teeth. It moved towards him - or not - and other, smaller beings were spun off from it, as if it were a centrifuge. Some disappeared back into the cloud, some devoured one another, some spread out through the woods, seeking prey ... and finding it, if the terrible screaming was anything to go by.

Illya ran. The fear rose up, huge and strong and it took him. It ran for him, still silent, not screaming - yet - but running. He ran faster than he had ever run before, faster than he would have thought he could run. He ran fleetly, gracefully, leaping over boulders and fallen trees, slipping between vines, ducking under rock outcroppings, always aware that any of these obstacles could at any time grow a mouth and eat him. He ran, and behind him the monstrous entity pursued. It reached for him -its tentacles actually brushed him - but the fear was faster, the fear was stronger. He ran, and then up ahead he saw it. He saw it!

The portal was smaller than when he had first viewed it from the other side but it was still active, still spinning and swirling those unearthly colors. He ran. He collided with a hanging object and bounced off, whirled around, running backwards now because he had to know, he had to see.

It was a man, a man hanging upside down, his organs exposed and pulsing, his mouth open and screaming. It was a host of men, hundreds, all hanging and bleeding, all screaming. As if to answer those screams a chorus of voices - if they could be called voices, and what else could you call them, but not with any vocal apparatus known on earth or any sane place - rose in a ululating cry. "Ia ia! Shub Niggurath! The Black Goat With A Thousand Young! Ia ia!"

"Illya!"

What? His brain reeled under this new shock. His name? His name in a human voice - in Napoleon's voice? He wanted to answer so desperately that he clamped his hands over his mouth again because he wouldn't call out, he couldn't make a sound. But he could run, and he did. The monster behind him had halted at the clearing where the men hung and screamed, and a great wet swallow began as the sacrifice was accepted. Illya sprinted, eyes fixed on the portal, and there were hands extending through it now! Two hands, Napoleon's hands, he'd recognize them anywhere. "Illya!"

Illya ran and then he leaped, hurled himself through the air and the hands caught him! They grasped his wrists and he grasped too, and he was being drawn back through the portal. He could even see through it now, see Napoleon's desperate face, see the scientists behind him, holding his legs, hear the chanting. "Illya! I've got you!"

A tentacle grabbed his ankles, bound them together, pulled him back. It was strong beyond measure and his hands slipped on Napoleon's wrists. Now, finally, he screamed out loud. He screamed Napoleon's name, he screamed for help, he screamed and screamed, and screamed. Pain roared through him as mouths began to gnaw on his flesh, eating him alive, and all the time that inexorable backwards pull. Napoleon was screaming with him, and his head was inside now, through the portal and into this terrible reality. Napoleon's eyes opened wide in fear and shock, and then they met his. The screaming - both of their screams - stopped.

In that moment Illya saw Napoleon's terror, matching his now because Napoleon could see, Napoleon could ... Napoleon could be eaten! Napoleon shouldn't ... he shouldn't be here. Napoleon had tried so hard to rescue him, but Illya could see the portal closing now, doubtless under the influence of the chanting that continued to rise and fall, rise and fall. The grip on his legs was too strong, and Napoleon was being pulled inside. Illya gave a great cry of despair, fear, and loss, and opened his hands. Napoleon couldn't ... Napoleon couldn't be pulled in because of him. He opened his hands, and let his rescue go, let his safety go, let it all go because ... because he loved Napoleon, and loving him he wouldn't drag him to this terrible doom.

Napoleon cried aloud too, and tightened his grip. "Illya! Hold on!" But Illya wasn't holding on. Illya had let go - to save him. To save him, Napoleon Solo. His hands slipped, and Illya slid further back. The fear had left Illya's face, and there was nothing to be seen there now but love. Love.

Napoleon squeezed harder - he absolutely would not let go, he would never let go - and loved Illya back, loved him with all his heart, all his soul, all his being. Love. Pure, shining, blazing love. His love met Illya's, as the chanting rose even higher behind them. Napoleon pulled again, and there was a huge, rending sound, and a brilliant flash of light Illya flew forward. He slammed into Napoleon, sending him and the scientists holding his legs back onto the ground. The portal closed.

It closed, and nothing but sky remained. It was a black, ominous sky, but recognizably the sky. Earth's sky, Sol's earth, the Solar System's Sol ... the sky. For a moment they all lay there in a tangled heap then Illya screamed again, and the scientists nearest him were screaming too. Illya was covered in some sticky substance that began raining off of him in small blobs that moved, and scurried, and bit. Napoleon cried out in pain, and stomped at one that had grabbed his foot. The other scientists were stomping too, and the smell was indescribable; a thick fetor that made his head swim and maddened him, making him insane with revulsion. A blast of white foam hit them, covered Illya, and him, and the ground, and the other scientists, and then Illya was scrambling back from the pool of ichor, from the creatures still feebly flailing around in it. Napoleon grabbed another fire extinguisher and joined his spray to the first. They sprayed, and they stomped, and finally all was still.

Nothing now moved in the foam. Illya was so covered that new terror swept Napoleon, because he couldn't even see Illya's face, just this smooth featureless white mass. He swiped at it and Illya's eyes peered at him, pupils enormous, eating up the blue, surrounded by the whites and Illya's mouth opened, gasped for air. A loud rumble of thunder came to them, and then a bolt of lightning struck the far wall of the amphitheater. With a thunderous roar the building began to collapse inward and Napoleon grabbed Illya, pulled him up, and they were all running for the exits. More chanting seemed to rise up to meet the bolts striking downward, the earth rocked and pitched under them, and they just kept running.

Outside the main building there was blue sky, but right behind them a huge black cloud towered over the Thrush lab. Lightning forked down, unceasing, blast after blast until the building was gone, the amphitheatre was gone, and only a black scorched place remained. Still the lightning came. Closing the portal forever, Napoleon thought. The universe was righting itself, destroying this dangerous space, destroying everything - and everyone - that remained.

When they counted heads, two of the scientists were missing. They had stayed, continuing their chants, to be sure the portal remained closed, and they had died. The other scientists were crying their names - "Repass! Rowe!" but to no avail, and after a few moments their cries stopped. Napoleon looked around their little group, only six in number now.

Nobody was carrying anything, so the books and papers, the stolen equipment, had been destroyed with the lab. And now the clouds were breaking up, clearing away, and the only evidence that anything had happened here at all was the blasted place where Thrush had tried to summon up unnamable forces and found they had a tiger by the tail. A tiger from another place, another ... what? Dimension? He supposed so. And he and Illya ... he and Illya were safe on this side, in their own world. Illya was naked and bruised and bleeding, covered with chemical foam, coughing and gagging on it, but he was alive. He was alive! Napoleon cried out and put both arms around him, holding him fiercely close. And Illya held him too, arms twined around his waist, face buried in his shoulder. "Love," Napoleon said because when he opened his mouth that was what came out. "Illya. I love you." Queer for him after all, he thought, and laughed.

The sound shocked him because who would have thought he would ever laugh again, after what he had seen? He had seen horrors beyond that portal that he couldn't begin to describe, didn't want to describe. The world had escaped an enormous peril, and his world, his own world, was right here in his arms. "I love you," he repeated.

"I love you too, Napoleon." Illya's voice was muffled in his shoulder. "Lyubuv."

"And a good thing, too," one of the scientists said. "When he let go of your hands, when he sacrificed himself to the Outer God Shug Niggurath something happened - a bright flash that I couldn't even look at, and then he came flying through. As if he was pushed."

"That's just what happened," Illya said, and spat out a mouthful of bloody foam. "It was so strong. It was too strong for me, and for Napoleon, and all of you, too, holding him, but it was nothing to that other force, whatever it was. The tentacle was dragging me back, and eating me ..." he stopped talking and pushed his face harder into Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon patted his back and after a moment he could continue. "There was a flash of light ... so much light I thought it was an atom bomb after all. Then something pushed me out, and slammed the portal shut behind me. I felt it."

"Love," Napoleon said again. "It was love. And that -" he gestured towards the blackened space behind them - "was powerless against it." He laughed again. "Kind of makes the problems we're going to face when we go back to UNCLE and tell them we're together seem small, doesn't it."

"Yes," Illya said, and smiled up at him. He didn't question, didn't argue. "Yes, it does."




Their car was waiting right where they'd left it, and Illya ran a hand over its smooth surface. One of the scientists came up to him. "Can we catch a ride?" he asked. "Rowe ..." he stopped,. and cleared his throat. "Rowe had the keys to ours."

Rowe, Napoleon thought. Dr. Rowe. The man who had believed him, who had helped him save Illya. He was indeed the kind of man who would have remained behind. And Repass. His eyes stung. "Sure," he forced out through his tight throat, and they piled into the back seat. When he got into his own seat he heard the car's radio, sending out its call signal. "Hold on," he said, and picked it up. "Solo here."

"Mr. Solo." It was Waverly, and he sounded angry. Very angry. Napoleon blinked at the handset.

"Yes sir."

"Report."

"Uh ..." he stopped, and looked at Illya, clueless. What on earth would he - should he - say? Illya took the handset from him.

"Mr. Waverly. Agent Kuryakin here. Situation normalized. Thrush satrap destroyed. On our way back now."

"Destroyed, Mr. Kuryakin? That is indeed what I heard, but it was hard to credit, since it was not in your instructions. May I presume that you have all the data from their laboratory? The missing materials?"

"Oh. No, sir." Now it was he who faltered, as Waverly's sharp exhalation filled the car.

"Nothing? You retrieved nothing before blowing up the satrap? Mr. Kuryakin, I must say I am disappointed in you - in both of you. Give me Mr. Solo."

"Yes, sir." Illya handed it back.

Napoleon cleared his throat. "Ah, Mr. Waverly? We did not blow up the satrap. It was -" he was interrupted.

"So Thrush destroyed it? Before escaping with the important materials, I suppose?"

"No, sir. Nobody destroyed it. It was ... it was an act of God."

"Excuse me, Mr. Solo? I think I misheard you."

"He said," Illya clarified, "that it was an act of God. Which it was. Sir."

Silence. Napoleon knew, as surely as if Waverly were in the car with them, that he was considering that statement - the statement made by Illya Kuryakin, who didn't fit the Communist stereotype in many ways, but who certainly shared their view of deity. One of the scientists tugged at Napoleon's arm.

"We should all be decontaminated," he hissed, and Napoleon stared at him. Of course they should be. They were all dripping with a mixture of chemical foam, and noxious substances that might at any moment, as far as he could tell, decide to crawl right off of them and start devouring anything in sight.

"Yes. Yes! Mr. Waverly! Did you hear that? We need decontamination. All of us. And the car. And ... "

"Mr. Solo. Get a hold on yourself. Who is `all of us'? What type of decontamination? Radiation? Was there an atomic accident? Is that what Mr. Kuryakin means by an act of God? Because I hardly think -"

"Sir." Now it was he interrupting Waverly. "It's ... it's really hard to explain. I mean, over the radio like this. I mean ..." the stench in the car, the stench coming from all of them, suddenly was too much for him, and his voice cracked. "For the love of God sir just let us come in and get out of these clothes and into the hottest showers you've got. Please!"

"Come on in," Waverly said curtly, and disconnected.

So they did. Napoleon drove as quickly as he could manage to UNCLE New York, where they were met by a group of men in hazardous material suits. When they got out of the car, one of the men jumped in and drove it away, and the rest of the men surrounded his dripping, reeking party. They were rushed inside and straight to the labs, where their clothes were removed, and their naked bodies subjected to steaming hot showers. He welcomed it. He felt he would never be clean again, and he needed no urging to lift his arms and his balls, to bend over and spread his cheeks, to open his mouth and his eyes for the stream. They had been separated right away, and he wondered what was happening to Illya now. He wondered why he couldn't really focus on what was being done to him. He wondered why he couldn't think, and why he was so cold even under the hottest water. And when his legs threatened to give way so he sat down on the tile floor, he wondered at the consternation this produced. The water stopped, and men in white clothes were shouting questions at him, and waving instruments around. He wondered why they had evidently turned out the lights, because it was very dark now, and then he didn't wonder anything for a long time.




The monster had him. Napoleon thrashed about, trying to free himself, frantic to be away from here, away from this. Something bit his arm, a sharp needlelike tooth and he screamed. "No! No no no ... Illya!" Tentacles pinned him and he fought them, fought what was holding him back, keeping him from saving ... "Illya!" There was a tumult of voices, noise, and buffeting and he struggled more wildly, but another sharp bite defeated him. It drained his strength, pulled him down into the maw awaiting him, killing him, and killing Illya, too, because Illya was depending on him for rescue. The name was a sob now as he spun into darkness. "Illya. Oh, Illya, I'm sorry. I tried ..." he wept.

"Napoleon."

He needed to open his eyes ... why were they so heavy? But he had to see, so he forced them open a crack and he was staring up into Illya's face, drawn and haggard; into Illya's eyes, haunted and ringed with black circles. He tried to reach for Illya, to pull him through the portal, to save him, but his hands wouldn't move, his eyes were closing. But Illya's hands were firm and strong on his shoulders, Illya's voice was right in his ear.

"Napoleon. It's all right, Napoleon. You're - we're - in the hospital. It's all right. You saved me. You did. Don't ... don't cry, Napoleon," and now Illya's voice broke, too, on his name; just as his voice had, on Illya's. "Moy droog, moya lyubuv, it's all right. I promise you, I swear to you, it's all right." Illya's voice was fading but Napoleon wasn't afraid, not anymore. If Illya said it was all right, it was all right. All was well, all was well, all manner of things ... and then the darkness took him down.

Illya stroked the sweat damp hair back from Napoleon's forehead, and straightened. His arm hurt, where he had pulled out his IV to reach Napoleon, but when he had seen Napoleon rip out his own IV in his frenzy, when he had heard his name in such tones of despair and grief and ... and love ... he hadn't hesitated. And he didn't hesitate now. He turned on the doctors and nurses and orderlies and spat a mouthful of Russian at them. He was incensed, and even without understanding his words they all recoiled. Then he switched to English.

"Who is in charge here?" he asked, deathly cold, Ice Prince cold, and saw one of the men in white shiver. He rounded on him. "This is an enforcement agent. Don't you know better than to randomly shove sedatives into him? All he needed was to know where he was, and with whom. Standard procedure specifies that someone be standing by to tell him - us - just that, when he - we - awake. Instead, you ... I want you off his case. Now. If I see you near him again I'll have your job for lunch, and your balls for dessert." He took a step forward and the man not only backed up, he held his clipboard in front of his face. "Go."

He did, and when Illya turned on the rest of the crowd he saw that most of them had also melted away while his attention was distracted. Two nurses and a young nurses' aide remained, and he knew both of the nurses, knew that Napoleon was in safe keeping with them. So he nodded at them, with a smile for the aide, and looked around for a chair. He saw none, and the smile disappeared.

"I want a chair," he said flatly, because his legs were weak, and his knees were threatening to buckle. But he wouldn't go back across the room to his bed, he wouldn't leave Napoleon unconscious and so suddenly, terrifyingly, vulnerable.

"Illya," the nurse - Suzie, he remembered, and where was the other nurse? Gone out the door. Maybe she was getting him a chair. He hoped so, for her sake. He was still angry, so angry it was taking everything he had to contain it, and he was only containing it because he didn't want to bully these nice young women who were just trying to do their jobs. But if ... "Illya," Suzie said again, and he blinked at her. Why did she keep saying his name?

"What!" he snapped, but she didn't react to his tone.

"You really should be in bed."

"I'm not ..." then someone came in the room and he whirled, ready to defend Napoleon with everything he had, feeble as that was right now. Dr. James Holt backed up, hands outspread.

"Whoa there, Illya. Don't hurt me." He wasn't laughing,

and Illya saw suddenly that it had taken real courage for this man - his own personal physician, his poker buddy - to approach him. Well, good. He hadn't lost his edge.

"I won't," he said, but he didn't move away from Napoleon's side, either. "I know you, James. But I'm not letting you near him until you tell me what you're planning to do."

"All right," James said, and at the soothing tone Illya's eyes snapped.

"Don't patronize me," he said, each word coming out like a tiny jagged piece of ice. "Don't you fucking dare patronize me." It was very seldom that he used profanity - in English, at any rate - and that made it so much more effective when he did. And indeed James had taken a step back, towards the door. Illya was aware that Suzie and the aide were frozen behind him, but neither one of them would act without orders from Holt. And if Holt even thought ...

"I'm not. I swear, I'm not. That sedative should not have been given. I agree with you. Brian is new. I'll put him in for retraining. Now I'll have a chair brought for you if you insist, but you'd be better off in bed. I promise nothing will happen to Solo."

"No more sedation. No restraints. You ... you have no idea where we've been. If he wakes up again, not sure he's back, and he's tied down ..."

"No sedation, no restraints. He shouldn't need them."

"He wouldn't have needed that one if they'd followed procedure!"

"I know. Illya - you're about to fall down. You need that IV, you're dehydrated. Pinch your skin if you don't believe me."

He did, and looked with an odd, detached interest at the little tent of flesh just staying there. Well then, James was right. He was dehydrated. But he wasn't about to fall down, he wouldn't fall down. He would ... he would walk back to his bed and calmly lie there, because he did know James. And James knew him, and James knew Napoleon. James knew how enforcement agents needed to be cared for. James was ... James could be trusted. He nodded once, to convey all of that, and backed towards his bed. When his legs bumped it he sat down, swung them up, and lay back. And panicked. Flat on his back like this he couldn't see Napoleon, couldn't see James, couldn't watch the door. He struggled upright and the aide quickly pressed the button, raising the head of the bed so he could recline comfortably while still standing watch. Well, sitting watch. Or something. "Thank you," he said to her, and without being told held out his arm for the IV. After the quick sting he watched Dr. Holt reinsert Napoleon's, too. When the needle went in Napoleon moaned, and shook his head.

"It's all right, Napoleon," Illya said, and saw Napoleon relax. "It's all right," he repeated, to the aide this time, who still looked scared. She managed a weak smile and he returned it, warmly, and saw her blush. He was going to pass out, he could feel it, and he looked towards James again. "Take care of him," he said, and when he saw James nod he let the gathering darkness take him down, too. Because it was all right, it was. He slept.




They were debriefed separately, the first time they'd been apart since it happened. Illya understood the need for that, and Napoleon did too. They exchanged rueful glances, and Illya rolled his eyes, making Napoleon laugh. Then Illya was wheeled out the door. The wheelchair irritated him, but he concealed it. One display of rage, one reminder of what he was capable of, was enough. Two would dilute both. So he sat in the wheelchair and acted as if he didn't mind, as if this might even have been his idea. In truth, he wasn't sure he didn't need it. His legs could still be unreliable, and there was an odd aura of unreality about everything, as if at any moment that portal would open again, that other world come roaring through. He shivered at the thought, and was still shivering when he faced Alexander Waverly.

Mr. Waverly? Why was Mr. Waverly handling his debriefing? That was unusual, to say the least. There were trained personnel for that. The last time he had spoken to Waverly, Waverly had been furious with him over the destruction of the Thrush satrap. He had not sounded as if he bought for one moment the Act of God explanation. Illya wished he had a better one, but he didn't. It still seemed to be an act of God, and a good thing, too. A damn good thing.

But he hated having Waverly angry with him, hated that Waverly thought he had botched his mission. Whatever had carried him to this point drained away, leaving him weak. And he couldn't even hide it, not from this man. So he looked away, looked down at his lap, at his hands, clenched into fists.

"Mr. Kuryakin. Tell me all about it. From the beginning."

"You know we'd been tracking the sales of radioactive materials and equipment," he began, and saw Waverly nod. It steadied him, this recital of known fact, of events that had happened before ... before. He went on through the contact from the scientists, the drive to the lab, the chanting. "There were two groups chanting," he said. "The scientists ... and Thrush. The chants were different, but they used a lot of the same words. The words from those books that Thrush also was collecting. We ... we didn't really concern ourselves with that part, Mr. Waverly. The books, I mean. We looked at copies of some of them and it was just ... it was ... arrant foolishness. Nonsense. That's what I called it, and Napoleon laughed and made some kind of joke about Halloween. We should have taken them seriously, but we didn't. It never occurred to us. I'm sorry." He was. That was the first and biggest mistake. "We were so focused on the nucleur threat that we made a mistake."

"I understand."

"Do you?" He looked anxiously into Waverly's face. "Do you really?"

"As much as anybody can who was not there."

There. He shuddered. He had been there, hadn't he. There ... here ... "It happened!" The words burst from him, as if he'd been given an electric shock, forcing them out. "You don't know ... it happened! It really happened! And if it happened once it could happen again! It could happen now, right now! That wall could open, or the floor ... and that other world would come through again! What the hell ... what is wrong with Thrush? How could they - why would they ..." he was raving, he could hear it, and he clamped both hands over his mouth to stop it.

"Mr. Kuryakin. Mr. Kuryakin!" Why did Waverly keep saying his name? Just like Suzie had. How many times had he said it? "Drink this." A glass was put in his hands and he drank, obedient because this was Waverly, but what was it? A sedative? No ... no, it was whisky. Strong whisky. Well, that was a good idea. It steadied him, and he set the glass down but since there was no table beside him it fell to the floor and broke. He flinched away from the sound.

"I'm sorry."

"It's nothing. You heard the chanting?"

"Yes. We followed the sound and saw Thrush - a whole army of them. Hundreds and hundreds of their soldiers. They were all chanting, and there was blood. A dead woman, cut open, on the table. A ... a human sacrifice, wasn't it. That must have been part of the ritual. But we didn't really have time to investigate anything because ..." he gasped for breath. "Because the sky opened! It opened and it was colors I'd never seen before, and a huge monster with its mouth open. Nothing made any sense after that. The Thrush soldiers started screaming, and there was a wind, or a pull. I saw them fly up into the air, fly through that ... that hole and then I was in the air too, and I was flying through it! I was in it! I was in those colors and those shapes, and men were screaming terribly, like I've never heard before and I should have helped them, even though they were Thrush, even though they opened that door I should have helped them because nobody deserves what happened to them but I didn't. I didn't even think of helping them. I just thought of myself, of saving myself." He was losing the battle for air because to breathe in he'd have to stop talking and he couldn't stop talking, the words and the images kept pouring from him until there was no more air and he choked, black dots dancing in his vision.

A hand was on the back of his neck, forcing his head down, between his knees, and he stared at the floor, at the puddle of whisky, at the broken glass. He was passing out, he knew it but then he inhaled, a deep gulp of air and his head cleared a little. "Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said, sharper now and it was his name again, Waverly was saying his name again and he laughed. Waverly released him and he sat up, wiping tears of laughter ... or something ... off his face. He wanted another drink, wanted it very badly, and in a moment one was in his hands. He tossed it off, coughed, and leaned over, way over, to set it down on the floor. That was good, wasn't it. He'd remembered the law of gravity, he'd put the glass down, and that was good.

"Are you able to continue with your report?" Waverly asked, and he nodded because that was his responsibility now, to report. `Only I am saved alive to tell you.' The thought almost made him laugh again because it was so true, but he didn't laugh. He continued on, trying not to feel anything about what he was saying, just to report it. He reported on the incredible twist of luck that had saved his life - voiding, stripping, covered with vomit so he smelled like them, not like ... not like food. He reported on the hiding place he'd found, and the black horror of seeing the mouths open in it.

"Everything was hungry," he said, staring past Waverly now, into that terrible, hungry place. "Everything had a mouth, everything ate ... everything. Horribly, because everything eaten went down screaming. They are all still screaming. If that portal opens again, you'll hear them. Even Thrush didn't deserve that, although what ... what were they thinking?"

"It was a miscalculation," Waverly allowed, and that was so funny that Illya had to laugh some more, who wouldn't. So he laughed until he was gasping and choking again. Waverly did nothing this time, offered him no more drinks, didn't even say his name. He just waited until Illya was exhausted, then said, "and then?"

"I heard Napoleon."

"How?"

"I don't know. In my mind. I heard him calling me. "Come to me, Illya," he said. `Illya, my love, come to me.' So I did. I went to him because Napoleon is my senior partner, Napoleon's orders are to be obeyed, and that was real. That was something ... something human in that inhuman place. But I was afraid." He shivered, remembering that fear, and then he couldn't stop shivering. Just as he hadn't been able to stop talking, stop laughing, now he couldn't stop shivering. "What is wrong with me?" he murmured. "Am I insane now? Did that drive me mad? Is that why I can't stop ... anything I start?" A warm blanket was draped about his shoulders and he clutched at it, pulling it tightly around himself.

"You are in shock," Waverly told him. "Deep shock, and none of the standard medical remedies have helped that. But we need this information, and I believe that reporting on your experience, finishing your assignment, will be as beneficial as anything else. You and Mr. Solo are both in shock. Take a breath, and continue. Of course you were afraid. Anybody would be."

Yes, they would be. They certainly would be. Shock? Huh. He thought about that. Not enough blood in his brain, all centered in his vitals. Keeping him alive. Keeping him sane, too, because his brain was quiet, not continually playing and replaying ... he nodded. "It saved me," he said. "My fear saved me. My fear moved me, stopped me when I needed to stop, kept me quiet when I wanted to scream. I breathed fear in and out like air, and it kept me ... like air, too. Flowing, but silent like air when there's no wind.. Nothing to hear, nothing solid to look at, nothing to smell or taste. Just ... just air, moving through the woods."

"That was your training taking over," Waverly said comfortingly. "Your fear was so great that you moved on instinct, and training. Good for you."

Good for him! He wanted to laugh once more, because how could anything be good for him ever again, knowing what was behind everything real and solid? Training certainly sounded better than fear, however, just as crouched had sounded better than cowered, and passed out better than fainted. But he knew the truth. It was the original words that were true. "There was a monster," he whispered. "It was huge, not earth huge but towering into the sky, like ... like mountains on top of mountains. It moved ... I don't even know how it moved. Things spun off of it, like it was a centrifuge, and they were alive and hungry too. They ate each other, they ran into the woods and ate other things - I could hear more screaming - and they were sucked back into the ... the thing. And all of a sudden it was after me, it saw me and it was after me and I ran. I ran, but not fast enough, not faster than ... than ... Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!"

"Mr. Kuryakin!" Waverly's voice was much sharper now, and louder and there was nothing funny about it, nothing funny about the expression on his face. "Then what happened?"

Then what? Oh, right. He was reporting on this event, and this event hadn't stopped with that that awful sight, that terrible cry. So he shouldn't stop either. "I saw the portal, and I saw Napoleon. I saw him! He was ... he was through it, and he could see me, too. Somebody was holding onto him, and he was reaching out for me. I ran, and I grabbed his hands, and he held me. He held me and he pulled and then ... oh, and then it had me!" He screamed again at the memory. "It had me and it was eating me ..." he pulled off the blanket and stared wildly at his legs, which were bandaged. He tore at the bandages, and Waverly said. ...

"Mr. Kuryakin! Illya! Stop that! Stop that right now!"

It was an order, an order from Waverly, and Waverly had used his first name. How odd. But it was like a slap in the face, being shouted at by Waverly. He sat back up, and continued. "It was eating me, and pulling me, and Napoleon ... he wasn't strong enough for it. It wasn't his fault, nobody could have been strong enough. I could see through the hole and there were about seven men holding his legs and they were all being dragged across the floor. Napoleon ... he was going to be pulled inside. I couldn't ... he shouldn't ... so I let go." He was back there, looking into Napoleon's face, letting go of his only rescue, his only possible salvation. "I love him, so I let go. But he loves me, so he held on and I wasn't even afraid anymore. I looked at him, and I loved him, and he loved me. Then ... then there was a flash, so bright that I thought it was an atom bomb after all, and I flew. I flew through the portal, and I was on the floor in the laboratory. But then the slime on me started jumping and clawing, it - they had teeth, they were biting me and attacking us and eating us alive! Somebody sprayed them and me with a fire extinguisher," and he laughed again. "A fire extinguisher! Whose idea was that? It was a good one, because it smothered them, and we stomped on them as hard as we could. Some of the men were still chanting, and the portal closed. It closed! Then the lightning came. We ran ... but not all of us. Two of the scientists stayed, to keep chanting, to keep the portal closed, and they died. They were civilians, and they died. They died to keep that world out of ours."

"Another human sacrifice," Waverly said, and Illya looked at him.

"Yes," he said slowly. "Another human sacrifice. One to open, two to close. And we ran outside, and the lightning kept coming, and that's what happened to the laboratory and the supplies and the books, Mr. Waverly."

"An act of God."

"Yes. Was it enough? Is that portal still there? Is it ..." he spun around, because it suddenly seemed terribly likely that it had opened up right behind him. It hadn't ... now. "How can I ever know again? How ..." he screamed once more, faintly, and covered his mouth to stop the sound that shamed him so, here in front of Waverly. What kind of an agent was he? Screaming and laughing and ... and crying, because his face was wet. "Or am I just insane?" he said finally. "I hoped I was, when I was hiding in the tree. How wonderful, I thought, if I was just insane. Instead of ... of there."

"You are not insane, and your report was thorough and comprehensive. The excess emotionalism is not your fault. Ideally we would have waited until you were medically fit for questioning, but that wasn't happening here in the hospital. But before we release you ..."

"To where? The madhouse?" It was where he belonged, he was sure of it, but how would that be, to be in a straitjacket, in a padded cell, alone.

"No. Not the madhouse ... really, Mr. Kuryakin. The situation is already rife with drama. Please don't add to it.

"I'm not ... I mean I won't. I'm sorry." He swiped at his eyes angrily.

"You are overwrought, as anyone would be. Right now you are going back to your room, and have your bandages changed. You will be discharged, and we are sending you and Mr. Solo to a safe house on a private island. You will have the house and grounds to yourselves, and you will rest and recuperate there."

"Mr. Solo? Napoleon? " And what had he said to Waverly? `He loved me, and I loved him,' he had said. Well, that was hardly appropriate. But it was too late to unsay it now.

"Yes. I believe you will each be the other's best medicine. As to your concerns about the portal, the scientists assure me that it is most unlikely to reopen. It took Thrush years to collect those supplies and books, and they were all destroyed. They were trying to unleash a monstrous menace on the earth, in the false belief that they could control it, that it would obey them."

"Obey them?" He laughed, but it was a real laugh this time. "The goat with a thousand young obeys no one," and he laughed some more. "I'm sorry. I keep trying to pull myself together, and I keep failing. They ... you don't think it can happen again?"

"No. They do not think so, and they have convinced me. Now I am hoping to convince you."

"All right. Good."

"Good," Waverly echoed. "Mr. Kuryakin, I will see you again when you return from your leave." He rose, and the door slid open. Dr. Holt was there, and he winked at Illya.

"Well? Ready to be checked out?"

"Yes," he said, and James wheeled him through the hall, back to his and Napoleon's shared room. All through the process of having his legs treated and rebandaged he kept silent. How ordinary the wounds looked! He had suffered worse many times. When it was finished he looked at James. "Where's Napoleon?" he asked.

"He is with Mr. Waverly, having his own debriefing. Whatever befell you two is locked down under the tightest security I've ever seen. I know what I know because I treated you, but nobody knows the whole story except for you, Solo, some very frightened and grieving scientists, and now Alexander Waverly. A good thing, too. Some things are better off unknown."

He sounded very solemn, and for some reason Illya thought of a television announcer, ending a show with those words, then a fade to black, credits rolling. He began to laugh again. He laughed until his sides hurt, until he couldn't breathe. When James held up a syringe, questioningly, leaving it up to him whether he wanted it or no he nodded, and welcomed the sting in his arm, welcomed the blanket coming down over his mind, welcomed oblivion when it came.




They sat in the back seat of an UNCLE taxi, and an UNCLE driver sat in front, behind the wheel. Napoleon supposed they weren't considered fit to drive, and he supposed that was correct. In fact ... he looked at Illya, curled into a tight ball on the seat, pressed against him; at his own arms, wrapped around Illya. Illya had already been there when Napoleon got in and they had grabbed onto one another, clung to one another, and if the driver, or the nurses, or the security men had thought anything of that nothing had been said. But of course they had thought something. Who wouldn't? UNCLE's two top Enforcement agents reduced to clutching one another like frightened children. It was a good thing they were leaving, going to some safe house on some private island. Where, he had no idea. Where they were now, he had no idea. They had driven out of Manhattan, he knew that, because they had been in the Midtown Tunnel. But that long dark hole had frightened him and, from Illya's choked off moan, it had frightened him too. So he had stopped looking out the window and squeezed his eyes shut, and Illya had buried his face in Napoleon's shoulder. In a way - and Napoleon hated admitting this even to himself, because it was wrong, and bad of him; but he couldn't not admit it because he couldn't control his mind at all - he was glad that Illya was in worse shape than he himself was. It gave him something to focus on, someone to be strong for. Illya was afraid, which was natural. Illya had been in that place for hours, had seen and heard things. So Illya was looking to him for safety, and he would, he would provide it. But that was a fallacy. Nobody could keep anybody safe. If that portal opened again there was no safety anywhere, even in his arms, even ... he cast a wild glance behind him.

"What?" Illya jerked around too. "What did you see? Is it ... is it back? Do you have your gun, Napoleon? They took mine, but if that portal opens again I'd rather be shot. I don't think those people are dead yet, I think they're still screaming and being eaten over there. Give it to me!" He clawed at Napoleon's jacket, and groaned when he came up empty. "Why ... why did they take them?"

"I don't know. I wish they hadn't. Hey." He leaned forward, rapped on the glass separating front and back seats. "Driver."

"Driver?" the man said, and laughed. "What the hell, Napoleon. Driver?"

He had said something wrong again. He couldn't cope with this world at all, obviously. But this was important, so he pressed on. "Whatever. Give me your gun."

"Ah, that would be a negative, Napoleon. Sorry."

"Give it to me!" He lunged forward, banged on the glass. It held firm, and he swore.

"It's bulletproof," Illya pointed out. He was leaning forward now too. "So you can't break it. We need to ... ah, driver?"

"Again with the driver? What, Illya? I'm not giving you my gun, if that's what you're asking. I don't know why you two aren't armed, but there must be a reason for it."

"No, I know. But I have to ... I need you to stop the car for a minute. I have to ... um ..."

"Pee," Napoleon offered helpfully. "He has to pee. Pull over."

"I can't right here, but I'll take the next exit. Okay?"

"All right. Thank you," Illya said, and sat back. Napoleon leaned closer.

"Good job," he whispered. "I'm glad one of us is thinking."

"We'll have to take turns," Illya said, and laughed. Napoleon laughed too, but then the sound of the car's blinker made him start. His starting made Illya jump, and grab on to him. But the car slowed, stopped, and Napoleon remembered the plan - the unspoken but clearly understood plan. I guess it's my turn to think, he thought, and laughed again. He tapped Illya's back, and gestured to the lights of the gas station they were turning into.

When they came to a stop, Napoleon opened the door and climbed out. Illya did too, and stretched; elaborately up high, then down to touch his toes. The driver didn't get out, however, and Napoleon frowned. Illya saw it and shook his head, walked around and knocked politely on the window. It purred down.

"Do you want something?" he asked. "Like coffee, or -" then he was through the window. Like a portal, Napoleon thought, and he grabbed Illya's legs, pulled him back out. Illya had the gun, and the driver was unconscious in the front seat.

"Nicely done," Napoleon said approvingly. He took the gun and tucked it into his inside jacket pocket. "Do you really have to use the bathroom?"

"No. Let's dump him here and ...oh. We don't know where we're going."

"Let's make him tell us," Napoleon said grimly, and jerked the driver back upright. He shook him, slapped his face, and his eyes opened.

"What the hell? Napoleon? Did Illya just ... well, fuck. Guys, are you kidding me? Give me back ..." then he stopped. "You're not kidding," he said slowly. "Don't you know me? It's Mark. Your friend, Mark," he added pointedly to Illya, rubbing his jaw, which was purpling. "What are you planning to do with that gun?"

"Tell us where we're going," Napoleon ordered, then he hesitated. "Mark? Mark Slate?"

"Yes! Have you two lost your minds? You - you're not going to shoot me, are you?"

"Only if the portal opens," Illya said. "And then you'll be glad, um, Mark."

"Give me back my gun, Illya. Seriously."

"I don't have it." Illya spread his arms out.

"Solo?"

"No. Just drive us where we're supposed to go. Don't even think of contacting HQ," he added and Illya reached through, yanked the radio out of the dashboard, dropped it to the ground. Stomped it. Mark was staring at them, clearly stupefied. "And don't change direction. I know we're heading east. Just keep on that way. Drop us off at the safe house, and go straight back. They'll give you another gun."

"I'll have to tell them what happened! And I'll have to fill out all that damn paperwork, and I have a date tonight, Illya."

Illya snorted, and got back in the car behind Mark. Napoleon opened the partition between front and back, then broke the control before sitting in the passenger seat. He felt much better, with the solid weight of the gun pulling down his jacket. If the portal opened again, he would shoot Illya, and then himself. Oh. And Mark. "Should I shoot him first?" he asked Illya.

"Solo. You're scaring the shit out of me. Why would you shoot me at all?"

"You'll thank him," Illya returned. "Just drive, Mark. The sooner we get where we're going, the sooner you'll be rid of us."

"You know I'll have to report this. You'll be in trouble, both of you. They might send a team out to get you."

"Oh good, more guns," Illya said. "Let them come." He sat back. Napoleon did too, and Mark drove.

The road ended at a body of water, and a sign. They all got out, and Napoleon frowned, reading it. "The Shelter Island ferry? This isn't exactly my idea of a private island."

"There's a car waiting for you on the other side, keys on the visor. Standard safe house procedure. The address is 131 Irene Lane. Give me back my gun, Solo!"

"No. If you had another one we'd take that ... wait. What else do you have in the way of weaponry? Any exploding cufflinks, or ..."

"Give me your belt," Illya said suddenly. "I know you, Mark. You have that plastic explosive in there, and the belt buckle igniter. It's your favorite. Give it to me."

"No! You've lost your minds! I ..." he closed his mouth when Napoleon put the barrel of the revolver against the back of his neck.

"I'm not threatening to kill you," he said soothingly. "But I'll hit you over the head, and we'll take the belt anyway. Good thinking, Illya. Hand it over, Mark."

"What do you think Mr. Waverly is going to say about this?" Mark demanded, unbuckling his belt and pulling it through the loops.

"And your communicator," Napoleon said. "I don't want you contacting them too soon. We can defend the house, once we're there." He turned to Illya, "He must have more gadgets on him. Mark loves his gadgets almost as much as you do."

"Just take anything he can communicate with. We don't want to leave him defenseless. I can kill us both with his belt anyway."

"All right." Napoleon accepted Mark's communicator, then snapped his fingers. "And the backup link in your tie tack."

"Fuck you," Mark grumbled. "I hope they pin your asses to the wall." But he removed his tie tack.

"We're taking the car keys," Napoleon said. "You can start walking as soon as the ferry pulls out. Not until then. Or we'll come back. And you don't want us to come back. Do you." He stared at Mark, who swallowed hard, looked sideways at Illya, and shook his head. "Right." He got out of the car, and slammed the door. Illya climbed out of his side, and they walked over to the ferry slip. There they waited. Illya never took his eyes off the car and Mark never took his eyes off of them, either.

The ferry arrived, and Napoleon paid for them both. They walked onboard and stood by the rail. After a few minutes the gates were closed, and the ferry pulled away. From where they stood they watched Mark shake his fist at them, and stomp back down the road towards town. Napoleon laughed a little, then stopped. Frowned.

"What did we just do?" he asked. "Have we lost our minds?"

"We just mugged a fellow agent, took his weapons, and disabled his communication devices before stranding him, and maybe we have, Napoleon. I don't feel quite sane at the moment. I haven't felt sane since I saw ..." he choked, and buried his face in Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon put both arms around him and held him.

"There, there," he said. "I'm armed now, and I could shoot us both ... in mid air, if need be. I promise you."

"And I can blow us up, and anything around us. It's a comfort, Napoleon."

"Yes, it is."

They said nothing more, just stood there with the wind blowing their hair, rocking with the motion of the ferry, wrapped in an embrace that probably, Napoleon thought, looked odd - queer, his mind obligingly supplied the word - to the other passengers, but it was hard to care. Of course they were attracting attention, which was against the rules, but ... then the ferry bumped against the dock and they staggered, almost fell, had to release one another to hold on to the railing. They walked off past the interested eyes of the ferry crew, and the car was waiting, just as promised.

Napoleon drove, first along a narrow two lane blacktop, then onto a rutted dirt road that went up and down and around, past other houses and open tracts of fields, and woods. Once he had to stop to let a deer cross the road, and felt himself smiling for the first time in ... in forever. "Nice," he said aloud, and heard Illya's little hum of assent. He passed the security checkpoint, paused while the car was scanned and approved, and pulled into the driveway, turned off the ignition, and they got out.

It was absolutely quiet except for birds and cicadas. Clouds drifted through the blue overhead, green leaves rustled. Illya reached out, touched a tree. He caressed the bark, and Napoleon waited for him. Then they looked at the house.

It was white, with aluminum siding and brick. They had to climb some steps to the front door, and could see that in lieu of a porch there was a deck overlooking woods, and fields, and a pond. The ordinariness of it all was a blessing. That was just how it felt, as if they were being blessed by its unremarkable exterior, its lack of any decorations or embellishments. Nothing to distinguish it from any other house in this neighborhood, or any other, really. The security was also a blessing. Retinal scans, fingerprint scans, voice recognition, all were engaged and passed through before they could open the door and walk inside. Napoleon immediately closed and locked it, reset the security system, taking comfort in the steady red glow of the `active' lights.

His ... or, rather, Mark's ... communicator beeped. "Uh oh," he said, and Illya turned from where he had been looking out the sliding glass doors, and came back to his side.

"Solo here."

"Mr. Solo. And Mr. Kuryakin?"

"Right here, sir."

"I see. Mr. Kuryakin. Did I not tell you that a recurrence of the phenomena you experienced is believed to be impossible at this point?"

"Um, yes, sir, you did."

"What exactly did I say?"

"You said the scientists said it had taken years for Thrush to accumulate the books, and the materials, and that it had all been destroyed. You said it wouldn't happen again."

"Well?"

"I ... I forgot, sir."

"I see. Mr. Solo. What did I tell you about the same subject?"

"You said the portal was closed forever by the lightning strikes, and that the .. er, the confluence of events that opened it could not be repeated."

"Well?"

"I ... it's hard to keep that in mind, sir, when you've seen it."

"Mr. Slate is rather shaken up."

He certainly wasn't going to apologize. He wasn't the least bit sorry, and neither, he was pretty sure, was Illya. "Yes, sir."

"Well, gentlemen, it is reassuring to see that you have not lost your knack. I trust you will not use those weapons?"

"Unless the portal opens," Illya put in quickly. "Then Napoleon is shooting me, then himself. Before ..."

"It is not going to reopen."

"Yes, sir."

"You have six weeks before a reevaluation. You will report to Dr. Holt on your return."

"Yes, sir," Napoleon said again.

"Don't hesitate to contact me if you need anything."

"Thank you, sir."

"Good day, gentlemen."

"Good day, sir," Napoleon echoed and Illya leaned in.

"Thank you, sir."

"Gentlemen." Waverly disconnected. Then they just stood there and looked at one another.

They searched the house, checking for bugs, for intruders, for ... for portals. Napoleon had the gun out and ready. Illya held the belt and buckle together. When satisfied that nothing was in the house besides them, they stood in the larger bedroom. It held a double bed, two closets, and a dresser. Another bedroom was across the hall, and it had two singles and one closet, and a matching dresser to the one in this room. One small bathroom was down the hall. It was all so ordinary. So blessedly ordinary.

"Napoleon." Illya sat down on the bed, and lifted troubled eyes to him. "I need to tell you. I told Mr. Waverly ... I told him that you love me. I told him I love you, and you love me. I didn't mean ... I was telling him how you pulled me through, how I let go because I love you, and you held on because you love me. I didn't even think ... I'm sorry."

Napoleon laughed, and it was a real laugh. He sat down beside Illya. "That's nothing. I told him we're queer for each other. I was trying to explain how I told the scientists that I could reach you with my mind. That's what I told them, so that's what I told him. I didn't think either."

Illya's brow furrowed. "Queer for each other? Really? That's what you said?"

"That's what I said."

"And are we?"

"If that means that I love you, that I have always loved you, that I want to hold you, and ... and kiss you, and more ... then yes. On my part, anyway."

"I wouldn't mind you kissing me. Does that make me queer for you?"

"You wouldn't mind?"

"No. And more would be all right, too."

"Well. Let's see, then. Ready?"

"Yes." To prove it, Illya tipped his head back. Napoleon leaned closer, and they smiled at one another.

And then the noise came.

Napoleon's finger twitched on the trigger of the gun, which had already moved from his side to Illya's temple. Illya yanked at the belt, tearing it open, bringing the buckle close to the igniter. Then both froze. After a moment, while their eyes darted about the room, and their ears were almost painfully acute, the sound came again - a scratching beneath them. Illya swallowed.

"I think," he began carefully, letting the belt fall to the floor from suddenly nerveless hands, "that's a normal noise. I mean, not normal for inside the house with us, but of this world." Napoleon, hand shaking, lowered the gun. "I think," Illya started again, "that I'm just as glad you didn't shoot me. Because I'm pretty sure, " here he cast a nervous glance around them, "it's not necessary. Yet."

"And I think," Napoleon answered carefully, "that I'm relieved that you didn't set off the explosives. I think we're hearing an animal underneath the floor. Like a raccoon. Or a possum. Or squirrels."

Illya looked horrified. "Bats? Do you think it could be bats?"

"Possible, but not likely"

"Napoleon." Illya reached over, closed his hand over Napoleon's, which still grasped the gun. "We don't know what it is, do we? Maybe ... I mean ... hold onto the gun for a while longer, all right?"

"Whatever it is," Napoleon answered. "I think it's in the crawlspace." Another scratching, rustling sound made him jump. "I think it behooves us to investigate. Bring the belt too, though. Just to be on the safe side."

"All right." They went down the hall, and back outside. Napoleon led the way down the stairs, eyes still moving ceaselessly, ears still alert for the smallest sign, the slightest hint of anything out of the ordinary. He could hear Illya behind him, and knew that Illya was equally on guard. A bird swooped down, giving a warning hoarse cry and both men jumped.

"Maybe you should just shoot us here and now," Illya said suddenly. "I can't stand this. I can't stand living like this. How are we supposed to live like this? For the rest of our lives? No. I can't ... I don't want to."

Napoleon stopped and frowned, thinking it over. "Right here and right now," he repeated. "In the fresh air and sunshine ... in one another's arms. Maybe that would be better. I agree with you. I hate feeling like this. I wish ... I wish we had died in the lightning strikes, like those scientists." Then he hesitated. "But ..." he frowned again. Something was wrong with his thinking. He shook his head. "Let's not do that yet. Let's ... well, we have a mission, don't we?"

"We do?"

"To investigate the strange sounds coming from the crawlspace of this secure safe house where nobody is supposed to be. Let's do that, first. Let's walk around to the back of the house, figure out how to get in there, and investigate. Surely we can manage that."

"All right," Illya said doubtfully. "If you really think ..."

"I do." He firmed his voice. "I do think so. Follow me."

So Illya followed him. He followed Napoleon around the house, and when they were confronted by a small door in the foundation, padlocked shut, he produced the key ring given to them at headquarters, with the front door key on it, and held up the small additional key beside it. Napoleon took it, knelt down, and removed the padlock. He pulled the door open, and it creaked in protest. As he did so a strange squeaking came to their ears, followed by an unmistakable growl.

Napoleon knelt down, gun at the ready, and peered inside. Then he sat back on his heels and pulled his keychain out of his pocket, thumbed the tiny penlight attached to it, and shone it inside the crawlspace. "Oh," he said softly. "Illya - oh. Come look."

Illya crouched beside him, and followed the direction of the light. A small, raggedy looking dog was huddled inside, teeth bared. She was trying to curl her little body tighter around the tiny puppies at her belly. They were squeaking in distress as she moved, and she was growling at the intruders. "Oh," Illya echoed. "Look - Napoleon! Be careful!"

Napoleon extended a hand to the dog, palm up, fingers slightly curled. "It's all right," he said coaxingly, and Illya almost answered him before realizing Napoleon was not addressing him. "It's all right, girl, all right." He turned off the flashlight and backed up a little.

"They can't stay here," he began, and Illya blinked at his tone. It was crisp, authoritative - his CEA was addressing him for the first time since ... well, since. "It gets too cold at night, and if she was able to get in a predator could, too. Go inside, and set up a bed for her. Use the spare room. Get towels and a blanket. Put them in the closet - she'll feel safer in an enclosed space. Make it soft, but not too soft - they're so little they could smother. Then find something really tempting to eat. The fridge should be stocked. I'd come with you, but I'm afraid she'd try to hide them. Go."

So Illya went. He hurried back to the house, up the stairs, and inside. He found the linen closet and filled his arms with towels. He spread them out on the floor of the closet, and topped them with a clean sheet. Then he went into the kitchen, and found a whole roasted chicken in the refrigerator. He pulled some pieces off. Piling the fragments onto a paper plate he hurried back outside. Napoleon was sitting cross legged in front of the crawl space, and as Illya approached he could hear him, still talking in that placating voice.

"It's all right, girl, all right. What a good dog you are, what a good mama ...Illya. Good job. " He took the plate, selected a plump piece of white meat and extended it to the little dog. She snatched it from him and swallowed without even chewing. He held out another piece - making her stretch her neck a little further this time. By the fifth bite she had stood up, the puppies squeaking in protest as they lost contact with her teats. "Now," Napoleon said. "Give me the plate." He set it down at the entrance to the crawl space and she went to it, began eating rapidly. "Pick them up," Napoleon ordered, and Illya crawled inside the small dark hole. "Quickly," Napoleon said, his tone never changing but conveying urgency all the same. "I counted them several times, and got five each time. Tell me when you have them all."

Illya scooped them up two at a time and grabbed the last one just as the mother dog finished her meal, whirled around and snapped at him. He pulled back so fast he hit his head on the side of the house.

"All right," Napoleon soothed, and again Illya almost answered that yes, he was all right. How foolish, he thought, and blushed. But it was the exact same tone Napoleon used when comforting him - in Mother Fear's cell, in the back seat of UNCLE's car, He backed all the way out, and rose. The dog put back her head and howled, and the puppies cried and squirmed in his hands.

"Go to the house, but slowly," Napoleon directed. "I'm sure she'll follow. Come on, girl, come on. That's right. We're not going to take them from you. We're going to keep you safe, you'll see. There's more food in here for you, and it's nice and warm ..." it was almost a hypnotic rhythm and Illya wasn't the least bit surprised to find her trotting at his heels as he climbed the steps. She was so small herself she had to hop up each one. When he entered the house she stopped and pawed at his legs pleadingly.

"It's all right," he said to her, trying to match Napoleon's tone. "Come on, I've got a nice place for you. There's plenty of chicken, too, all you want. Come on." He went down the hall and heard the click clack of her nails on the wood, and the soft tread of Napoleon right behind her. Back down on his knees he carefully laid each tiny morsel on the sheet.

"Good job," Napoleon approved, and patted the sheet invitingly. "Come on girl, that's it. They're all here. Come on ..." and she did. She went right inside the closet, nosed each puppy in turn, so vigorously that they fell on their sides and protested again. Then she laid down and they immediately latched on once more. Silence fell. She lay on her side and licked them, they made little grunting suckling sounds, and Illya and Napoleon sat and watched them.

After a moment Napoleon scooted back, and rose. Illya followed suit. "Water," Napoleon said. "And more chicken. We'll have to go to the store because she'll need real food, puppy food."

"Puppy food?" Illya queried as they went back to the kitchen, closing the spare room door carefully behind them. "Aren't they too little?"

"Nursing bitches eat puppy food," Napoleon said, as he found a bowl and filled it with water at the sink. Illya loaded another paper plate with more chicken. "Careful there are no bones," Napoleon cautioned, and Illya nodded. Napoleon eased the spare room door open, and peeked in. Illya could see him smile and they entered together. The mother dog hadn't moved, but when Napoleon put the water bowl down she leaped up and hurried to it. The puppies complained again but she drank thirstily, sides heaving. It was their first really good look at her. She was very small - Illya had seen larger cats. Her fur was matted and tangled and bristled over her eyes to the point where he wondered that she could see at all. Her ribs were too visible, and her pelvic bones jutted out. All in all, she was a pitiful sight. But the puppies were fat little balls of clean, well groomed fur. Napoleon scratched the little dog's ears, and her tail wagged rapidly. She finally stopped drinking, and turned her attention to the food. "Newspaper?" Napoleon said, and Illya hastened to find some. He did, by the fireplace, and brought it back. Napoleon laid it flat right outside the closet door and when the dog had cleaned the plate she went to it, squatted and made a little puddle. Then she returned to her litter, stretched out on her side, and they quickly scrambled over one another to get to her. Silence fell. Napoleon grinned.

"All lined up at the milk bar," he said, and removed the wet newspaper. Illya replaced it, and followed Napoleon to the door. "We'll leave them for a few hours," Napoleon said. "We'll check on her before we go to bed, but I think it's going to be all right now. Imagine her hiding there with those babies. She must have been terrified. As well as starving and dying of thirst."

"Where do you think she came from?" Illya asked. "She doesn't act like a wild animal."

"No, she doesn't, does she. Somebody's pet - put out when she got pregnant, maybe. But I'll call the pound tomorrow and see if anybody's reported her missing."

"We could ask the caretaker," Illya offered. "He might know something, too."

"Right. But for now it's late, I'm hungry myself, and ... Illya. I left my gun outside!" He turned and ran. Illya ran after him. "Talk about unprofessional," Napoleon was saying as they rounded the side of the house. The gun lay there, and beside it was the belt and buckle. Napoleon snatched up the weapon, checked it over, blew dirt out of the muzzle. "It'll need a thorough ..." then he stopped. He stared at the gun as if it were a snake. "Illya," he whispered. "Were we really considering ... seriously considering suicide because we were afraid? Did I almost ... almost blow your head off because we heard a dog in the crawlspace? What - I don't feel very well." He started back to the house, still staring at the gun. Illya followed him, the belt dangling limply from his hand, the buckle held carefully in the other hand, well away from it. He had no answer for Napoleon, because the only answer to both questions was yes. He realized that he didn't feel very well, either. They put the gun and the belt in a cabinet on top of the refrigerator, and sat down on the living room sofa. Napoleon put an arm around his shoulders, and he put his arms around Napoleon's waist, and they just sat there.

"You know," Napoleon began at last, "Mr. Waverly assured me it positively could not happen again. Surely he wouldn't say that if it weren't so."

"He said the scientists told him the equipment, the books, the radium - everything Thrush had amassed over the past years, was destroyed. And without it, it couldn't be repeated. He'd be able to tell if they were lying, right?"

"Yes. And why would they lie? They don't want it to happen again - two of them gave their lives to keep it from happening again."

"You know what else is bothering me, Napoleon?"

"What?"

"When did I become such a coward? I mean, thinking of me, only me. If another portal opened I die and I'm out of it, but ... what about the rest of the world? When did I stop caring about that?"

"I was a coward, Illya. I wanted to go after you right away, when you were sucked in. But I ... I was so afraid. It was as if my brain was telling my body go, go, go and my body ... my body ..."

"Your body was right, Napoleon. If you had jumped in too, we'd have both died. Or whatever it is that happens to you over there. I wish I believed it was death."

"And then that moment ... that moment when you let go."

"Because I love you."

Napoleon kissed the tip of his nose. "Yes. And that moment when I didn't let go, but held on harder,"

"Because you love me."

"Yes." A kiss on the forehead this time. "That's when that light came, and pushed you through."

"And that light is what triggered the lightning bolts."

"Yes. It sounds ridiculous said out loud. But ... we saved the world, didn't we. With those scientists' help. We saved the world. And if the world is still in danger from that ... well, we're among the very few who know anything about it, aren't we."

"Yes."

"So we don't really have the right to just kill ourselves. Do we."

"No. Damn it, Napoleon, I felt safer when that was the plan. Now I'm afraid again. I hate being so afraid. I mean, we know about it, but we don't know what to do about it, do we? If that wall opened up right now ..." in reflex both started, stared at the wall, clutched at one another ... "what would we do?"

"I don't know."

"I mean saying it was love is all very well and good, but practically speaking what would we do?"

"We could sing "All You Need Is Love".

"I didn't know you were a Beatles fan."

"Not a fan so much, but hard not to be aware."

"I'm a fan."

"Are you? Are you really?"

"Yes."

"Even though they kind of co-opted your haircut?"

"I prefer to think of it as popularized."

"Okay. It looks better on you."

"Well, thank you. You know, if that portal did open again right here and right now ..." and this time neither jumped, neither clutched fearfully at the other, and neither noticed, either ... "we have to think about her now." They looked towards the back bedroom. "We couldn't just leave her. She'd be trying to protect them."

"Good grief. You're right. We have an innocent to guard. Look. Why don't we contact those scientists ourselves? Ask them if there is anything we can do to be prepared. Surely they're not sleeping too well either."

"That's a good idea. I'd feel much better with some sort of plan. Do it now, Napoleon. Call Mr. Waverly, and ask him how to reach them."

So he did. He opened the channel and when Waverly's voice - calm, slightly quizzical - came over, he said, "Mr. Waverly. Illya and I would like to contact the scientists from this last ... er, mission. We want to know if there's something we can do if it ever happens again. I know you told us it wouldn't," he added hastily. "I'm not doubting you. But ... we'd just feel better with a plan."

"I thought you had a plan, Mr. Solo. Murder/suicide by gun, or by explosion. Isn't that right?" The voice was tart now.

"Well, we thought maybe we could do a little better than that."

"That is certainly reassuring. They will call you. Does that suit?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Thank you, Mr. Solo. Mr. Kuryakin? Have you also abandoned the idea of mutual self immolation?"

"Yes, sir."

"Glad to hear it. Gentlemen." He disconnected. They sat for several minutes, then Napoleon sighed.

"Well that's out of our hands, now. Probably for the night. It's late. They're ..." the phone rang. Illya snatched it up.

"Kuryakin here. Yes, Dr. Phillip. Yes, we did. Yes, we do. Yes ... oh. Really. That's rather ... yes, I see. You are. You're not. I see. You really think so. I am sorry for your loss. Well, that's very kind of you to say ... I see. Yes. Thank you."

He hung up. Napoleon frowned at him. "Well?"

"There's no way to prepare. That world opened because of the exact things Thrush did, and called up. Now that particular portal is forever closed. If something similar happened again, it would be completely different. Another entity, even another universe. The only reason they were prepared this time is because they knew what Thrush had stolen. Apparently it's all very specific. But with other spells and materials, a huge octopus type behemoth could emerge from the sea, and devour everyone, or an invisible creature could rampage about by night, crushing and devouring anything in its path."

"I have to note that devouring is a consistent motif."

"You have no idea." Illya shivered. "How hungry everything is." He shivered again, then shook himself. "Or a meteorite could randomly fall somewhere, and be full of strange colors that suck the life out of ... well, everything living. Not to mention the dark unnamable things that have always lived among us. But they are very encouraged by the lightning, and by my survival. It implies there's a ... well, a stronger force. On our side - or at least the side of life. Courage, self sacrifice, and love are as good an arsenal as anything else so we might as go with that."

"A huge octopus type behemoth? How huge, exactly?"

"A walking mountain. With tentacles. And teeth."

`How many walking toothy tentacled mountains are there? Because that other thing ..."

"Evidently an incalculable variety. But it's no more nor less likely to happen now than it ever was. So ... go on with our lives. That's their advice. That's what they're doing. They're going back to teaching and studying and being with their families. A nuclear holocaust is more likely than another portal opening."

"That's not exactly reassuring, but I see what they mean. Live, and work, and love one another." A sharp yelp from the back bedroom brought them both to their feet. "And care for the innocent," Napoleon added, and they hurried to do so.

An hour later, they were still sitting on the floor in the spare room. The mother dog had come right to Napoleon, and pawed at his leg anxiously. "Out, girl?" he said, and she jumped up and down and yipped. Napoleon carried her away, telling Illya, "I don't think I need a leash. She's not going to run away from them. Keep an eye on them while I'm gone."

"Can I touch them?"

"Sure. You can pick them up if you want to. Just ... you know, easy."

So Illya reached into the closet and petted each puppy, using only one finger. He felt enormous and clumsy beside their tiny fragility, and wasn't in the least tempted to pick them up again. He just petted them, and watched them squirm around. Their eyes were tightly closed, and they began making little mewing noises after a moment. The mother dog rushed in and curled up beside them, licking them and stretching out so they could reach her teats. There was a frenzy of squeaking and struggling, and then there was silence. Illya sat and smiled at them, and after a moment Napoleon settled down beside him. He had the phone in his hand.

"Johnson? Solo here. We're in the Irene Lane safe house. You're the caretaker, right? Well we found this little dog ... yes, shaggy. Yes ... I see. Well, now she has a litter of puppies. You don't think ... I see. Well, that was kind of you - no, no, of course I don't mind. We don't mind. We brought them inside. Well ... I hadn't really thought that far ahead. Yes, I understand that. Really? All of them? I see. No, we'll take care of it. Thank you. Goodbye." He hung up, and turned to Illya.

"She belonged to a family down the street. They were there for the summer. When they went home, they just left her. Johnson says it happens all the time. A dog is part of the summer experience, but when they go back to the city they abandon them. Apparently there are packs of them in the woods. The dogcatcher does what he can to round them up. Johnson's been feeding this one, that's why she was here. He says if we call the pound they'll pick them up, but they'll be euthanized right away. They don't have the facilities to care for a nursing mother and her pups. So I told him we'd take care of it."

"How?"

"I don't know. Let me call my sister. She breeds toy poodles. She knows a lot about it."

"Is that how you knew what to do when we found them?"

"I suppose so. I try not to listen to her going on and on, but something must have sunk in. Hold on." He dialed. "Jillian? Napoleon. Yes, I'm fine. Yes, it's been a long time. I have something to ask you. Well, no, I didn't just call to chat. I never call just to chat, Jillian. Well, because ... will you listen to me? Illya and I are out on Shelter Island and there's a dog here with a litter of new puppies. What ... no, I don't know what kind. Little and hairy. No, not a flat nose. Pointed. I don't know how old - their eyes aren't open yet. Yes, she's feeding them. Yes, she's letting us handle her and them. Well, that's longer than ... I see. I thought maybe you ... " he laughed. "'Let you' isn't the way I would have put it. Thank you. Yes, we're here for six weeks. Never mind why on earth. All right, on the way back. Thank you, Jillian. Thank you very much. What do I need to do? Puppy food, yes, that I remembered. Well, she's a mess. Matted and filthy ... all right, we will. Yes. Thank you, Jillian. Yes, I'll keep you posted. I'm sure you will. Goodbye."

"Well? What did she say?"

They'll be nursing for at least five weeks, and won't start solid food for almost that long."

"What are we going to do with them when we leave? I mean, we could take them back to the city, but we never know when we'll be sent out again. And I'm not taking them to the pound."

"We're taking them to Jillian. She's already set up for it, and she's excited to have them. But she says we need to bathe and brush Mom. Those mats are probably hurting her. Like someone pulling your hair all the time."

"Tonight?"

"No. We'll leave them be for tonight. Tomorrow we'll go to the store and get food and a brush and dog shampoo. Jillian says all we have to do is take care of Mom. She'll take care of the puppies. Sound good?"

"Yes. I'm glad we found them, Napoleon. It's hard to worry about inter-dimensional gulfs and nameless horrors when I'm watching her feed them."

"I agree. And weren't we about to ... I mean, before we were interrupted, weren't we going to ... I mean ... well." Illya was looking at him curiously. The setting sun slanted in through the blinds, casting a reddish glow. His hair caught it and sparked it back, as if the sunset itself had come to rest there. His face was partly in shadow and partly aglow, and all in all he was the most beautiful thing Napoleon had ever seen. He was staring at him raptly when he saw Illya's face change, reflecting the expression back to him. Without another word, without pausing for any further reflection, Napoleon leaned over and kissed him.

He kissed Illya softly, no other contact besides their lips and, in a moment, their tongues; softly, carefully, tenderly. Napoleon drew back. Illya was staring at him, eyes wide and blue ... so very blue. Napoleon smiled, rose to his feet, and held out a hand.

There was a long pause while Illya looked at the hand. For a moment it seemed he might not take it, that he might turn away. Napoleon understood, because he too was almost afraid of what was coming, of the totality of it, the depth of the commitment it would call for - from both of them. He had always felt possessive of his partner, proprietary. In so far as Illya was anyone's, he was Napoleon Solo's. But now the reverse hit him - hit him hard. He was Illya's. He was so completely Illya's that if Illya did turn away now, if Illya did not take his hand ... another portal, an earthly portal, seemed to open at the thought; a dark hole containing only the remnants of blasted dreams, and broken hopes. It terrified him, and his hand shook. But still he waited, because Illya had to come to him - come with him - of his own accord, with no persuasive arguments, no further appeals to his senses. Two portals lay before them, and it was up to Illya to choose.

He took Napoleon's hand. He took it in both of his, clasping it warmly, as if trying to assuage the trembling Napoleon couldn't - didn't even want to try to - control. He laid his cheek against the back of the hand he held, for a breathtaking instant, then rose; not pulling or dragging, rising of his own strength and with that perfect grace Napoleon had always ... had always loved. He moved closer, Napoleon's arms went around him and Illya's around him, too. Then they just stood there.

He could smell Illya's hair - fresh and sweet, like wild grass. He could feel Illya's body against him, slim but strong, soft skin, hard muscle. He could feel Illya trembling too, both of them trembling. Then Illya lifted his face, openly asking for another kiss, and Napoleon gave it to him. They kissed, no longer tentative, no longer light, each holding the other so tightly that there was barely room between them for breath.

They made their stumbling way to the bedroom like that, still clasped in the embrace, still locked in that kiss, nearly tripping and falling as they went through the door. Napoleon kissed the top of Illya's head, then moved away. Slowly he unbuttoned Illya's shirt, taking his time. He slid it off Illya's shoulders, every brush of cloth against skin a caress. Illya shivered. Reached out, unfastened Napoleon's buttons as well. Napoleon shrugged the shirt off, and knelt. He heard Illya catch his breath, felt Illya's fingers brush his hair, felt that they were still trembling. With exquisite care he unbuttoned, unzipped, sent the pants down Illya's legs. Tugged at his briefs, brought them down too. Without urging, Illya pushed one shoe off with his foot, lifted it so Napoleon could pull pants, briefs, and sock off in one bundle. Did the same with the other shoe, the other foot.

He wasn't hard. Napoleon smiled at Illya's cock, soft against his thighs, and leaned in, placed a little kiss on the very tip, holding it up with one hand. Illya made a strangled sound and his cock stirred in Napoleon's palm. He coaxed it, with soft breath and warm lips, coaxed it into hardness, He kissed it, blew on it, brushed his mouth up, then down. He had never sucked cock in his life, and hadn't expected to start this new experience that way, but it was good, it was very good. So he opened his mouth, and drew Illya's now straining organ in.

Illya cried out, and his knees buckled so he fell, his cock yanked from Napoleon's mouth and now they were both on their knees, looking into one another's eyes. Napoleon smiled at him. Illya smiled too. "Thank you," he whispered. "I'm - I suppose I'm still not very well."

He was biting his lower lip and it was enchanting, so Napoleon leaned closer, did it for him. He nibbled, Illya's mouth opened and they were kissing again, slow and hot and sweet. Illya's tongue twined around his, Illya's cock was hard and ready against his. It was obvious what the next thing was. Napoleon moved back, and gestured towards the bed. They walked over together, and Illya got on it, laid down on his back. Napoleon kicked off his shoes, pushed down his pants and stepped out. He laid down himself then, on his side, propped on one elbow, sending his fingers exploring. Up Illya's side, along his ribs, down his chest, flat palmed on his belly. He rubbed Illya there, slow easy circles, and Illya's hips rose, pleading. Obligingly Napoleon moved his hand down, took Illya's penis ... Illya's penis, his partner's cock, his best friend's dick ... in his hand. It was such a huge thought - this was such a huge act. Nothing would ever be the same again. He wanted to share the thought, the apprehension, the passion, so he rolled over onto Illya, and their cocks met. Met and rose further, met and rubbed together. "How's this?" he whispered directly into Illya's ear, feeling him shudder and move his head to press closer. Obliging again he used his tongue, lightly, used his hot breath, and Illya cried out.

"Napoleon! I can't ... oh. Oh, yes, yes, please ..." he was moving now, faster, and Napoleon was moving too and it was happening, they were making love, one to the other, it was building now and with the orgasm they would be one.

The pleasure was so strong! So strong, stronger than any pleasure he had ever felt in his life and moreover it kept rising, kept increasing, and they kept climbing, climbing together, clutching at one another, both of them impatient now yet both of them trying to make it last, make it last, make it ... Illya screamed, taking Napoleon by surprise. He clamped his mouth over Illya's open one, taking the sound into himself, taking Illya's breath into himself and he was screaming too, both of them screaming, both of them grabbing and holding on, both of them ... the universe opened up, drawing them up, rolling them together. Light blazed all around them, in them, through them; from them, in them. In them both. In them both, forever.

He was panting, gasping, and shaking. He clung to Illya desperately, and Illya clung to him. The force that had just taken them, shaken them, and dropped them was gone now, but this was pleasure too, a different pleasure, a sweet slow easing down, a pure radiance shining around them and they at the center, floating, breathing in, and out, in, and out. Sleep was coming, and he pulled Illya even closer to ensure that Illya went down into sleep with him. With his last awareness he heard Illya's faint sigh, felt Illya go limp in his arms and he sighed too, and then a warm, kind darkness took him. Took them both, together.




Napoleon sat cross legged on the deck, the mother dog on his lap, watching Illya play with the puppies. It had been an enchanted time here, as if they had indeed moved through a portal to another universe, a universe where time did not exist, where nobody existed besides the two of them, and this little canine family they were caring for. It seemed that the only measurement of time they had was the puppies' growth; from tiny nuggets that squeaked, ate, and slept, to these little terrors that bounded around the room, tore at the bedclothes, destroyed any object left within reach, and swarmed the men whenever they entered, climbing them and giving little bites and scratches that had recently become painful.

Right now Illya was lying down on the deck and he was covered in puppies, a wriggling mass of brown and tan fur. He was laughing, although occasionally he gave a muffled curse or exclamation of pain as sharp puppy teeth or claws found their mark. The mother dog lay placidly on Napoleon's lap. She was still nursing, but often she pawed at the door and whined to be let out, let away from them for a peaceful meal and a nap on the bed.

"They're ready to leave her now," Jillian had said the last time they spoke. "I've been putting out feelers and I have several approved adopters. I can't charge much for them because we don't know the breed - mostly Yorkie from what you tell me, but who knows about the father, right? But I'm going to ask for a 50.00 adoption fee."

"I want them to go to good homes," Illya's voice had been anxious. "Nobody's ever been cruel to them in their lives. I want it to stay that way."

"I vet everybody very carefully," Jillian assured them. "This is what I do, remember? When you head back to the city you can just drop them off with me. I'll find a good home for the mother dog, too. You can put it out of your minds."

`When we head back?' Napoleon had said blankly, and blinked. Of course. They had been allotted six weeks, and that was nearly up. He hadn't given it a thought until then, but he had since, had thought about it a lot. He and Illya had discussed it that night, sitting out on the deck, drinking wine, watching the sunset. "I feel ready," Napoleon had said. "As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose."

"Me too. But Napoleon? I'm not sure I want to go back to fieldwork. I ... I don't think I do. Want to, I mean."

"Well, that wouldn't work out anyway, not if we're going to be together." Then, because they hadn't really gone this far in their discussions ... "aren't we? Going to be together, I mean?"

Illya gave him a sideways look. "We'd better be," he threatened. "If you think for one minute, Napoleon Solo, that I'm going back to my apartment, and you're going back to your penthouse, and start dating all those women again," he stopped. "Well, there's nothing I can do about it," he finished lamely. "But I won't like it."

"What's wrong with my penthouse?"

"Nothing. I just ..."

"I thought you liked it."

"I do! But not if every beautiful woman that crosses our path is spending the night there, and I'm sitting in Greenwich Village listening to jazz records!"

"I assumed you would move in with me. I mean, I haven't actually proposed, because we can't ... but essentially ... essentially that's what I thought. I mean, that's what I want. I mean ... will you? No more women. What a thought! After ... after this? After the way it is when we're together? No. If you refuse me I'm going to subside into my luxurious lair, dating no one, dying at last all alone, with a bitter joke about my last name on my lips. Is that what you want for me? While you sit, perfect in your self contained solitude, and play records?"

"That's the crappiest proposal I've ever heard, Napoleon. What happened to the romantic smooth talking Lothario? "

"He fell in love," Napoleon whispered, because Illya was smiling and this proposal, however crappy, was leading towards the only viable conclusion. "He fell in love with his partner. And field partners can't be lovers, much less ... well, whatever we're going to call ourselves."

"I like partners. Partners for life, Napoleon. Yes, I'd love to move into your penthouse with you. I'd love to work in science and technology, and leave the frantic adventures to somebody else. I'd love to come home at night and find you there ... or not, but know you're coming home. Home to me."

"Home to you," Napoleon echoed, and they kissed.

He smiled now, sitting on the sunny deck and thinking of that kiss - and all the others which had followed.

Illya got up, shaking his feet to dislodge the puppies. "That's it for you," he announced, and went inside, shook the kibble bag. The puppies ran in too, and followed him into the spare room. Mom bounded in, snatched a mouthful of food and ran back out again, whirling to snarl at a bolder puppy who chased her. Then she ran into their bedroom, jumped onto the bed, turned around three times and subsided with an audible sigh. Illya scooped up the errant puppy and stroked it. It wriggled in his arms, licked his face, and fell asleep. He replaced it with its siblings, closed the door, and came back into the bedroom. Napoleon was frowning at the mother dog.

"We haven't even named her," he said abruptly. "We just call her `mom', like that's all she is."

"There's no point in naming any of them, is there? We can't bring them with us."

"No?"

"What?"

"I thought ... I mean, unless you really object, I'd like to keep her."

"How would that work? Even if we're not in the field anymore we'll still have to travel sometimes, and we work long hours."

"Mrs. Klein - she's a widow who lives on the fourth floor - walks tenants' dogs for extra money. She'd be glad to walk her every afternoon for us, and after dinner too if we're working late. And she'd take her into her own apartment if we were away. She loves doing it, and says it keeps her from having to dip into her savings account."

"Oh."

"Unless you don't want to. It's a big commitment, I know, having a dog. I've never even considered it before. But this one ... she saved our lives, Illya. She really did."

"I know." Hard to remember now, the state of mind that had actually had him begging Napoleon to pull the trigger. The trigger of the gun pressed against his head. "I know she did."

"And she trusts me - us. She thinks she's home. I don't have the heart to tell her she's wrong again."

"Well." Illya sat down on the bed and patted her. She wagged her tail without opening her eyes, and he patted her again. "Well, all right. Do you have a name for her?"

"Angelique," Napoleon answered promptly, and Illya jumped him.

"No, you are not naming her Angelique! No, no, no ..." they were rolling around on the bed now, and it was rough, and impatient - both of them rough and impatient. They ripped at one another's clothes, barely noticing when the dog jumped off the bed and retreated to her cushion on the floor. They grappled together, struggled together, striving for the same goal, the same finish, the same ... the climax ripped through them, making them cry aloud, making them clutch at one another and thrust against one another and, finally, lie together in a crumpled heap, sweaty and panting. Napoleon drew back a little.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes. I'm fine, Napoleon. I'm more than fine. I'm wonderful."

"Yes, you are. You certainly are."

"Thank you. So are you. Just wonderful."

"We. We are wonderful together."

"Together," Illya echoed, and they lay there for a little while longer before getting to their feet. They showered together, laughing in the small stall, then Napoleon cooked spaghetti, and Illya tossed a salad. They ate together on the deck, the breeze ruffling their hair, moving the clouds across the moon, casting shadows over their faces. And it was wonderful, it certainly was.


Weeks Later

Napoleon was the first one home on that December night. He came in, shaking the snow from his coat. Vita, as he had named her, after the lives he still felt she had saved, came out to greet him, jumping up on his legs and laughing up into his face. He laughed back at her, ruffled her fur, and attached her leash, which hung on a hook right by the door. He carried her on the elevator and through the lobby, setting her down on the curb. She made her neat little circles - always three, no more, no less, and did her business. When she was finished, they walked on down the street. Vida began barking and dancing around on her leash, and Napoleon smiled and turned, knowing that Illya would be there. Illya picked her up, and kissed her, pouring a stream of Russian over her that Napoleon, without understanding it, strongly suspected to be baby talk. Then he put her down, and smiled at Napoleon. "Hello."

"Hello yourself. How was your day? I'm sorry I missed you at lunch. I stopped in, but you'd already left with Piper."

"Yes, we had lunch at Nathan's." They were walking back to the building's entrance now, Vita trotting beside Napoleon.

Once inside, coats hung in the closet, keys in the bowl on the table, Vita went to curl up beside the fireplace. Napoleon went into the kitchen, and began laying out the ingredients for lasagna. He was in the mood for it. It was cold out, bitingly cold, and it had been cold for several weeks. He was tired of hurrying here and there, shoulders hunched, teeth chattering. And it seemed days since he'd seen the sun. They left early, while it was still dark, and most nights, like tonight, it was dark again by the time they got home. Home. Napoleon had to smile. He and Illya, home. At home together. Nothing wrong with that. No matter the weather or the workload, that moment when they climbed into bed together - or fell onto the mattress already grappling together, or when one lone sleeper rolled over to welcome the latecomer in - it was wonderful. Illya's body beside his - or under his, or above his - Illya's arms, around him, or Illya's hands, on him. He smiled, and chopped sausage and peppers for the sauce, thinking that he would give Illya the full treatment tonight, would woo him and flatter him, charm him and ... he put garlic bread in the oven, and went to change.

Illya was working. Still in his work suit, briefcase lying by his feet where he had dropped it, he sat at his computer station and worked. Or ... not? Because the pictures on the screen showed tropical beaches, shady verandas, coral reefs. "Illya?"

Illya jumped, and turned off the screen. He got up hastily and came over to Napoleon. "I thought you were still cooking. Is that lasagna? It's a perfect night for it. Did you remember garlic bread?" He was trying to move Napoleon towards the door as he spoke, presumably to investigate the status of the garlic bread, but Napoleon sat in the chair, and turned the screen back on. Illya sighed, and sat on the corner of his desk. "I wouldn't have actually done anything without checking with you. It's just that you seem ... and it's been a hard winter, so I thought ... don't be ..." Napoleon reached for him, pulled him down onto his lap.

"Illya - of course I'm not." Whatever it was. He kissed Illya's cheek. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, I know you don't like people making plans for you behind your back. And I wasn't. I didn't call, or make reservations, or anything. I didn't even ask about leave - well, I asked about my leave, but I didn't check into yours. It's up to you. I just thought it would be nice. But never mind if you're too busy."

"I am not too busy, I have ample leave, and you can make all the plans you like. This sounds wonderful. Sunshine and warmth and you? All day every day for ... how long were you thinking?"

"Two weeks."

"Make that three, and you've got a deal. We never really had a honeymoon, remember? We're entitled."

"We had all those weeks at the safe house."

"That was medical leave, my friend." He shook his finger at Illya. "Never confuse the two, or you'll have both accounting and human resources on your neck,"

"Yes, sir. And unless you don't like it, if we choose this one ..." he brought up a screen that featured a tiny thatched bungalow on a private beach ... "we can bring Vita."

"That one it is, then. Illya - thank you. This is exactly what I needed, and I would never have done it for myself. Dinner's ready."

"Your homemade sauce is ready? I'm there." He made the reservations and turned in the leave requests while Napoleon put everything out in serving platters and bowls. It steamed most satisfactorily, and the smell rose up in a way that had Illya, hands washed, at the table within minutes.

It was going to be one of those nights, Illya thought, as Napoleon adjusted the thermostat and he slid, naked, between the sheets. He could feel it. The air between them seemed charged with sexual electricity, fairly sparking as they moved, as Napoleon moved to turn off the lights. He shivered with anticipatory pleasure.

Their sex life was always good. No question. Sometimes it was playful - he and Napoleon wrestling their way through the apartment, throwing one another onto the mattress, or the sofa, or the floor; meeting and clashing as equals, bruised and disheveled and loving it. Other times one of them - usually Napoleon, but not always - took the lead, bringing the other along and to completion in what was really a very traditional way. Sometimes it was brief - a quick encounter to take the day's edge off, to ease the slide into sleep for them both. It was never anything less than perfect.

But sometimes ... sometimes a portal opened. Sometimes they went to that place of light and love, beauty, and joy. It couldn't be induced, but there was no mistaking it once it began. Illya could feel it, in every fiber of his body. Napoleon felt it, he knew, because Napoleon was trembling as he settled in beside Illya, as he drew the covers up over them both. Why was Napoleon trembling, though? Well, look. He was shaking too. "Hold me," he whispered, and Napoleon pulled him even closer. "Don't lose me." The climb was beginning; Napoleon's warm hands sliding down his back, up his sides, his neck, into his hair, making him shiver. Napoleon was groping in the drawer now, presumably getting the lubricant. There was a pause, and Illya had to smile. No matter how flesh urged, no matter what paradise awaited, caps had to be unscrewed, cream had to be applied, caps should be screwed back on and ... the sound of the drawer closing stopped his musings, and a cool, silky touch at his entrance, at the most secret, private core of him, seemed to stop time. He felt the light growing, pulsing, as they moved closer. He felt Napoleon's cock replace his finger, his cock also coated with silk, making it so easy to open to him, admit him, accept him. Accept him, welcome him, cling to him, as a nova ignited in him, right up inside him. Napoleon was crying his name now, over and over again, his name, and the universe opened and drew them up. Up, together, clinging to each other, surrounded in light, bathed in light, light all through them, through every particle of their being, swirling round and round, binding them more and more tightly together, flinging them higher still.

They hung there, bodies entwined, souls entwined, the breath of one twining with the breath of the other, mingling there, together. Together, in perfect bliss, perfect unity, perfect love. Together.

Much later ... or only a moment afterwards, who could tell? ... Napoleon twisted on the bed to gather Illya in, to grab the comforter and drape it over them. Illya smiled. He could feel Napoleon's body relaxing, hear Napoleon's breathing even out, see his eyes close as sleep took him.

`Don't you ever worry ...' Napoleon had said to him in the beginning, after one of these encounters. He didn't finish, but Illya knew what he meant. What sort of portal was it, that opened for them, that had already bound them so tightly together that separation was unthinkable. And where there was one portal, could there ... couldn't there be ... more? Didn't he ever worry?

`No,' he had answered firmly. `And neither do you.' You know what it is, he meant. You know there's nothing there but love. Nothing harmful, nothing evil. And surely the presence of that would keep those other portals, those doorways into death and horror and blackness, far from them. How could they even exist in the same time and space? They couldn't. Napoleon had looked searchingly into his eyes for a moment, then his cleared. He smiled.

`Right,' he had said. `Neither do I.' He had rumpled Illya's hair, Illya had bitten him, very lightly, and a rousing episode of frottage had ensued, one that owed nothing to otherworldly mediums. Afterwards Napoleon had fallen asleep easily, and every night thereafter.

In a moment Illya heard their bedroom door creak open slightly, and then a light body settled on the bed with them. Vida gave the whole room a wide berth when things grew intimate, but happily returned to her usual sleeping spot when quiet returned. She licked Illya's face, then hopped over them. He could hear her turning around behind Napoleon's knees, once, twice, thrice, then down in a little ball and done. Well done, Illya thought, and kissed Napoleon's shoulder. Well ... all is well. All is well, all is well, all manner of things are well. He kissed Napoleon again, and fell asleep himself.

The End




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