The Nine Lives Affair

by Di T

"You mean you actually slept in the same bed as Janine?" Napoleon Solo was incredulous.

Illya Kuryakin, sitting next to him on the plane, shrugged dismissively. "There was only one bed. I told the desk clerk it was our honeymoon."

"And nothing happened—you didn't even kiss her?"

"Certainly not."

"Didn't you want to? I mean . . . lying there all night . . ."

Illya rolled his eyes.

Napoleon tried to picture the scene. What would he have done in Illya's place? The thought made his cock stir.

Illya took his reading glasses out of his top pocket and began cleaning them with his tie. "She was in love with Pierrot," he muttered.

Napoleon shook his head at his partner in amazement. "I couldn't have done it."

"What do you mean you couldn't have done it?" Illya breathed onto the tinted lenses. "Surely if the girl was in love with another . . . even you . . ."

"Maybe," Napoleon agreed, "but I couldn't have slept! I would have kept my hands off her, of course, but I'd have been awake all night."

Illya tsked, his mouth twitching at the corner. "Really, Napoleon, your libido is insatiable!"

"But in bed with her!" Napoleon persisted, "that would try most men's restraint. It's not as if she's ugly." Far from it; Janine had been voluptuous and beautiful—just the kind of woman Napoleon adored. God—this conversation was making him horny. Maybe if they landed in New York on time he'd call Cassie . . .

"Would you like a drink, gentlemen?" Napoleon's train of thought was interrupted by the stewardess.

"No thank you," Illya replied for them. Despite the reading glasses, he had nothing out to read. He gave the pretty stewardess nothing but the merest glance.

Napoleon smiled at her. She filled her well-fitting uniform delightfully. "Perhaps later." He winked and watched approvingly as the stewardess moved on down the aisle. She had big brown eyes reminiscent of Janine's. He wondered if Illya had noticed the similarity. Probably not.

Sometimes Illya seemed immune to girls, especially when he was focused on work, but how on earth could he have been immune to the lovely Janine lying there right beside him? Napoleon had slept with Ayesha, the belly-dancer. She was amazing. Napoleon's libido, never very far away, stirred into action once more as he remembered her magnificently toned body. But of the two, he would rather have had Janine.

He turned to look at his partner again. "If it had been me, I'd have been awake all night."

"What? You're not still going on about that!" Illya's eyes rolled once again. Napoleon sensed the beginnings of a snit, but something spurred him on. Surely Illya had felt something. The image that was forming in his mind wanted Illya to have felt something.

"But would you have maybe tried it if she'd not been spoken for?"

Illya sighed. "Would I have tried what?"

"You know." Napoleon winked.

"I hardly knew her." Illya lifted his chin.

"Illya, you were in bed with her! How well do you need to know her?"

Illya flashed him a furious look and Napoleon realised, belatedly, that he'd gone too far.

"If you must know, I strung up a blanket between us. She talked a lot then fell asleep very sweetly. I listened to her snoring for a while then slept till morning. End of story. All right? Does that satisfy you?"

Napoleon snorted. "It certainly wouldn't have satisfied me—but I suppose if it satisfied you . . . I worry about you sometimes, Illya."

It was Illya's turn to snort. "Don't bother. Worry about yourself. Is it natural to be so promiscuous?"

His partner's voice had risen with his temper. Illya's face flushed and he glanced around to see if anyone had heard them, then turned away from Napoleon. He twitched his shoulders and shut his eyes firmly.

Napoleon got the message.

Illya calmed himself behind his closed eyes. Really there was no call for him to get angry at Napoleon. His partner was only being himself, making conversation about his favourite topic. Usually Illya listened to him extolling the virtues of his latest conquest with a mixture of indulgence and mild amusement. Only occasionally did it irritate him and, Illya realised with sudden insight, it was usually when the conversation turned to his own dalliances.

Those dalliances had been few since he'd been with U.N.C.L.E. All ended within a short time, although longer than most of Napoleon's romances, which were noted more for their frequency than their duration. Marion lasted the longest, a couple of months before she finally told Illya that she could not put up with all the absences and broken dates. It was true; they only managed to go out a few times, then, during the last date, he had been called away before they finished the meal she cooked for him.

And it was a long time since he had been to bed with anyone. In Illya's book, sex was something not to be entered into casually. He thought about it a lot, but the reality rarely lived up to his expectations. There had been one time, back during his short spell in the Navy—nothing had measured up to it since. And now . . .well, his fantasies were too shameful . . .

Napoleon was the romance expert. Illya felt safer and happier exploding things and effecting timely rescues, leaving the romance and sex to his partner.

It appeared Napoleon felt that way too. He always seemed positively miffed when girls showed an interest in Illya. Well, that suited Illya. Let Napoleon do what he was good at and he'd do the same. That was the status quo. After all, what he really wanted was not an option.

So why was Napoleon so interested in his sex life all of a sudden? Perhaps he really was concerned that Illya wasn't getting enough. He hadn't been poking fun at him; he just seemed incredulous that Illya could have spent the night with Janine without making a pass at her. Napoleon had no idea. There was no reason to be angry. Illya's fit of temper was probably just the residue of the concussion he had incurred from that jar of olive oil—headaches always made him irritable. And embarrassing conversations about sex left him vulnerable to forbidden longings.

He turned his head and opened one eye. Napoleon had his nose in a newspaper. He must have noticed the slight movement because he looked up and winked at Illya. No hard feelings. Illya gave a tiny, rueful smile, closed his eyes once more and this time he drifted into sleep.

Napoleon kissed Sandy goodnight and got back into the taxi. It had been a piece of good luck to run into her at the airport. The flight from Morocco had left him strangely aroused and more than a little uncomfortable.

But the discomfort had nothing to do with memories of Ayesha's jewelled navel and exotic sexuality. It was the thought of Illya in bed with the beautiful Janine that had really turned him on.

While Illya slept, Napoleon had thought some more about Illya and girls. His prickly partner did not like to discuss his sex life, but Napoleon knew he didn't live like a monk. He'd been out with Alice Baldwin, hadn't he? And that crazy photographer woman—Marion. And there had been others he seemed sweet on too. He'd even been prepared to show Mimi how to kiss properly . . .

The image in his head of Illya preparing to kiss Mimi gave Napoleon a jolt, as it had in that cell when he had abruptly turned her around and kissed her himself. For a fleeting moment, as his lips had brushed Mimi's, he had imagined it was his partner's full lips that he kissed.

What would it feel like to kiss Illya? To plunder that sharp-tongued but curiously sensual mouth? When was the last time someone had silenced that biting wit with a kiss?

And so Napoleon had begun amusing himself by picturing his partner and Janine together and what might have been. He closed his eyes and imagined them undressing modestly behind the blanket screen, then slipping discreetly and chastely under the sheet. Separated, yet close enough to feel each other's heat, to brush against one another by mistake. . .

Would Janine perhaps have moved her hand over the soft, vulnerable skin of his partner's stomach? Would Illya have left it there? Would he have allowed her to brush the blond hair that grew there—that led downwards to . . .

Would they have perhaps rolled together, feeling each other's bodies, skin against skin, soft breasts pressed against hard muscle -

Napoleon was suddenly overwhelmed by an image of Illya naked, in the throes of passion, face flushed, sweaty, abandoned. He opened his eyes, felt sweat running down his sides. Catching his breath, he glanced at Illya asleep beside him, face relaxed, mouth slightly open, his eyes moving under his eyelids as he dreamed of—what?

Napoleon had quietly taken a book from his briefcase under the seat and read it for the rest of the journey. His mind kept straying to his fantasy though, and when they arrived back at New York he was wired, horny, and only too relieved when he saw Sandy in her uniform at the luggage collection point.

But now Napoleon had to get at least a few hours sleep. It was all very pleasant to have a fling with the captivating blonde air stewardess to round off the trip, but there was the report to complete for the debriefing tomorrow. Illya had resignedly agreed to meet him in the office early to make a start on it in the morning.

As the taxi took him home to his apartment, Napoleon's thoughts turned again to Illya. His partner and Janine in bed together. Why did that image haunt him?

"Prrp." Something brushed against his legs in the chilly darkness of the midnight stairs.

Illya reached down and fondled the cat's butting head as it insinuated itself around his feet once more. "You again, puss. Don't you have a home to go to?"

The cat replied with a sinuous pass through his legs and turned itself upside down, rubbing its face against his shoes and purring like a drill.

"Oh all right, you'd better come in." Illya unlocked his door, opened it and the cat shot inside ahead of him, tail high. Immediately there was a cacophony of noise.

"K'chortu! Couldn't you have waited till I turned off the alarm?" He dived for the box just inside the door and punched in the code to silence the ringing. He hastily reset the alarm for intruder mode and when he finally had a chance to remove his overcoat and enter his small apartment, the cat was sitting beside the refrigerator, fastidiously washing itself, and purring loudly.

The apartment felt cold and very slightly damp. Normally this would not have worried the Russian unduly, for he would have gone straight to bed at this hour. But he'd slept for a while in the plane and because of the time difference was not yet tired. He needed time to wind down. The contrast between here and the heat of Morocco was marked, so he rummaged in the back of a closet until he found a small, antiquated electric heater.

The heater had been in the apartment when he had taken tenure of it, left over from the previous decade at least. Up to now he'd had no reason to use it, the central heating being more than adequate for his requirements. However, it was May and the heating was turned off for the summer months. But tonight Illya shivered after Morocco. He looked at the appliance dubiously. The cord and plug seemed intact. Carrying it over to the fireplace, he plugged it in carefully and stood back. Nothing happened other than a faint humming noise. Then one of the bars began to glow red.

Satisfied, Illya went back to the kitchenette and was greeted by the cat, which had apparently finished its ablutions. He peered into the fridge and extracted some sausage and a stale loaf of bread that had not quite reached the green mould stage. It would have to do.

He took his sandwich and a bottle of cold vodka over to the sofa by the meagre fire, while the cat polished off the leftover sausage and a small can of sardines that had lurked uneaten at the back of the kitchen cupboard. At length the cat stalked over to join him, licking its lips and whiskers, and settled down to a further noisy washing session, before jumping up on Illya's lap and arranging itself on the letter he was writing.

It was a little known fact among U.N.C.L.E. personnel, but Illya Kuryakin was a patient man. When the occasion demanded it, his irascible façade would disappear, replaced by a kindly gentleness that few were privy to. With a small smile of amusement, he stroked his new friend, withdrew the paper from under it and settled it comfortably on his lap. It kneaded his black jersey and purred ecstatically, then stretched out along his left arm so that he was unable to move without disturbing it, and fell asleep, still purring.

An hour later, when Illya finally finished what he was writing and headed for bed, the cat rushed expectantly in front of him towards the bedroom and the Russian didn't have the heart to put it outside. He was sleepy now, thanks to the vodka, and wanted to do no more than fall into bed. He shut the bedroom door firmly however. He shared his bed with nobody, not even a small, scruffy cat. Especially not a small scruffy cat that very likely had fleas, if the amount of scratching that had recently taken place was anything to go by. No, the cat could sleep in the living room.

He was wakened some time later by a loud, persistent yowling. The more he tried to ignore it, the louder the yowling became. Pulling himself reluctantly from sleep into awareness, he noticed another faint sound—crackling and hissing. The yowling became frantic and Illya suddenly snapped fully awake and sniffed. He could smell smoke.

Automatically grabbing his communicator and gun from the bedside table, he dived out of bed and cautiously opened the bedroom door a crack. The living room was ablaze.

Illya dashed back to the bed and yanked off a blanket. He pushed a small emergency alarm button beside the bed as he did so, then, covering his head with the blanket, he ventured out into the flame and smoke filled room, pulling the bedroom door shut behind him.

Napoleon's communicator woke him from a deep sleep.

"Mr Solo—I've been trying to reach you."

"Sorry, Maud. I had a late night." She sounded upset. "What's the matter?"

"Oh Mr. Solo, haven't you heard?"

Napoleon's heart gave a thump and his throat constricted. "Heard what?"

Maud's voice became tragic. "Poor Mr. Kuryakin's apartment caught fire last night. He's in the hospital."

Thank goodness—at least he's alive. "In the infirmary there?"

"No, he was taken to the hospital. Mr Waverly is there with him now."

Napoleon's breath seemed to leave his body. Alive, but in the hospital! It must be bad. For security reasons, agents were treated at the infirmary at HQ as far as possible.

After what seemed an age, he managed to collect himself enough to thank Maud and sign off. Within ten minutes he was dressed and in a taxi on his way to the hospital.

Illya was in the intensive care unit, wired up to monitors and a ventilator. His skin and hair were still smoke-blackened. Mr. Waverly was talking to one of the doctors when Napoleon finally managed to get past the U.N.C.L.E. guard and into the room. The head of Section One turned round as Solo entered. His expression was grave.

"Ah, Mr. Solo. I've been expecting you. Bad business."

Napoleon tore his eyes away from the figure in the bed. Odd to think that only a few hours ago they had been sitting side by side on the plane. "What happened?"

Mr Waverly harrumphed. Napoleon could tell he missed his pipe. "Bad business," he repeated. "The whole apartment's gone up in smoke. Mr Kuryakin's lucky to be alive."

Looking at the inert figure in the bed, it was difficult for Napoleon to see that he was alive, although the beeping monitors and the ventilator told their story.

Napoleon swallowed the lump in his throat. "Thrush?"

"We think not. The Fire Department cannot be sure until the inspectors have been in, but they think it may have been electrical. As you know, Mr Kuryakin's building is old and the wiring was due to be replaced this year."

"Ah—what's his prognosis, doctor?" Napoleon fought to keep his voice even.

The doctor consulted the chart he was holding. "It's too early to tell. There are no serious burns, just a few minor ones, but he's inhaled a lot of smoke and his breathing is impaired. He could well have suffered airway burns. If all goes well, he'll come off the ventilator sometime today or tomorrow. It's too early to say whether he'll make a full recovery. Smoke can be very toxic and pneumonia is always a risk."

"Apparently," added Mr. Waverly, "he went back inside the burning apartment to rescue a cat."

"A cat? Illya doesn't have a cat." Napoleon looked puzzled.

Waverly shrugged. "According to the neighbour, that's what happened. He raised the alarm, alerted the neighbours, but when the Fire Department arrived he was back inside."

Napoleon went over to the bed and looked down at his friend, lying so still. "Stupid Russian." He touched the grimy face momentarily and the lump came back into his throat. "Come on, Illya. I need you—we've got work to finish."

"He can't hear you; he's sedated."

Napoleon ignored the doctor's remark. "I'll stay," he said to Mr. Waverly.

"There's no need, Mr. Solo. The doctors will let us know if there's any change. There's nothing you can do."

"All the same, Sir, I'd like to stay for a while. I've brought some work. I'll do it here."

"Very well, Mr. Solo. I'm sure Mr. Kuryakin will appreciate a friendly face when he wakes up. However, please do not forget our meeting at twelve o'clock."

"No Sir." My partner's lying here almost dead, how could I forget a meeting at twelve o' clock? "I'll be there," he said, and sat down on the chair beside the bed.

There was no change that morning, and at half past eleven, Napoleon reluctantly rose and headed for HQ and Mr. Waverly. As soon as he entered through the changing cubicle he faced a barrage of questions, everyone anxious to know Illya's condition. For a man who liked to keep himself to himself, Illya had a lot of friends.

He was unable to return to the hospital until late afternoon. When he arrived at Illya's room, several people were standing round his partner's bed. Napoleon experienced another pang of dread, until the doctor to whom he had spoken earlier turned around and smiled at him.

"Ah, Mr. Solo. We are about to try weaning your friend off the ventilator. If he is able to breathe for himself, we will stop it and let him wake up."

Napoleon let out the breath he had been holding. "He's making progress then?"

"He's a very tough young man. His lungs must have been in good condition before the trauma and it looks as though he doesn't have airway burns. He merely suffered bronchospasm from the effects of the smoke. Now, if you wouldn't mind stepping outside again, Mr. Solo, a nurse will call you in as soon as the patient is ready."

Napoleon waited as patiently as he could, resisting the urge to pace. The medical team seemed to be taking a long time. What if something has gone wrong? What if Illya can't breathe on his own? He peered through the glass to try to see what was happening.

One of the nurses caught his eye and beckoned him in.

"He's breathing well," she announced. When Napoleon frowned at the mask covering Illya's face, she added, kindly, "The oxygen mask is simply to help in the meantime."

The doctor had just finished giving Illya an injection. He patted the Russian's hand—no longer grimy. The patient had been cleaned up in the interim.

"Mr. Kuryakin, wake up. Can you hear me?"

"May I?" asked Napoleon, going round to the other side. He took Illya's other hand and stroked it gently, then patted it. "Illya—it's me, Napoleon. Wake up. You can't lie about here all day."

A flutter of eyelashes and a crack of blue.

"Don't try to speak. You're in the hospital."

The blue eyes opened a fraction more and turned towards Napoleon. A small frown creased between the blond eyebrows.

Napoleon reached out and smoothed Illya's brow. "It's all right. You had a fire."

Illya's hand fumbled for the oxygen mask to pull it off. "Fire?" he rasped in a weak croak.

The doctor interrupted. "Keep the mask on, Mr. Kuryakin. Don't try to speak." He turned to Napoleon. "I'll leave you with your friend now. Just five minutes, then let him rest."

"Thank you, doctor."

When they were alone, Napoleon turned his attention once more to Illya. "Your apartment went up in flames. According to Mrs. O' Donnell, you went back in to save a cat."

Illya became agitated and clawed at the mask once more. "Okay?" he managed to gasp.

"The cat? It's fine—apparently ran off with its tail in the air, which is more than can be said of you, you idiot. What possessed you?"

"Saved me," was the tired reply. Illya closed his eyes again and, after a moment, his hand went slack in Napoleon's grip.

Two days later, to everyone at HQ's relief, Illya was transferred to the U.N.C.L.E infirmary, well on the way to recovery. He was still on oxygen, but was sitting up and causing trouble already.

"I hear you're refusing the nice nurse's Jell-O." Napoleon breezed into the room after listening to a string of grievances from the young nurse on duty.

Illya managed to look mulish even behind the mask, which he snatched off when Solo appeared.

"My throat hurts and I hate Jell-O." His voice was still raspy.

"Hmm. Well I'll see if I can arrange some soup. Would that be more to your liking?"

Illya flashed him a look that might possibly have been gratitude. "Have you heard anything about my apartment?"

Napoleon sat down on the bed. "Sorry, it's a mess. What isn't burned is smoke-damaged. It's going to take a while to repair. Mr. Waverly says the U.N.C.L.E. insurance policy will cover it. Good to know that, huh?"

"Oh." Illya looked downcast. He fiddled with the bedcover. Napoleon rubbed his arm comfortingly.

"Don't worry. You know I have a spare room. You can move in with me until you find somewhere else or they repair the damage. I've cleared it with Mr. Waverly."

Illya said nothing but he glanced up at Napoleon and gave a small nod. Then he closed his eyes and lay back on the pillows. Napoleon stood up.

"I'll go and see about that soup."

Illya tried not to picture his apartment as he lay with his eyes closed. He had tried to convince himself that he could be sanguine about it—after all, this was not the first time he had lost everything—but it preyed on his mind. The minute he closed his eyes he could see the flames blazing up the curtains, the sight that greeted him when he opened the bedroom door, feel the searing heat as it seemed to scorch every part of him, even through the blanket he'd wrapped around himself for protection, and hear the piteous yowling of Mme Minouche—as he had named the little cat who saved his life.

As the image invaded his thoughts once more, his throat constricted and he fumbled for the oxygen mask. He hated the oxygen—it made him sweat uncomfortably—but his lungs felt filled with cotton wool and the coughing had made his throat ache. He didn't want to think about his belongings ruined in the blaze, but his mind insisted on doing an inventory.

His possessions were replaceable for the most part. He was unhappy at the loss of his guitar, which had been standing propped up by the window, so was definitely lost. It had cost him almost a month's pay. But the insurance would cover the loss—it didn't matter. He sighed. It didn't matter, he told himself, but an ache came into his chest because there were some things in the apartment that did matter.

"Mr. Kuryakin wants to see you, Mr. Solo."

It was a couple of hours later when Beverly Marshall put her head round the door of Napoleon's office.

"Thanks, Beverly. Are you doing anything tonight?" Napoleon suddenly felt the need for distraction. The anxiety over Illya had made him restless and unable to settle to anything.

Beverly came right in and looked coy. "I might be free."

"Fine—we'll go to Leonardo's and then maybe a movie. How about that? I'll pick you up at your place at, say eight o' clock?"

"Eight o' clock would be lovely—Napoleon." She said his name with a bat of her mascara-coated eyelashes and sashayed out of the room. Napoleon followed the progress of her agreeably plump behind with appreciation. Then he immediately switched his attention to Illya and hurried towards the infirmary.

Illya was sitting up again. He was studying a book, squinting at it without his reading glasses. Of course, they would have been lost in the fire. A half-finished bowl of soup lay on the cabinet beside him. He still wore the oxygen mask.

"Ah, feeling better?"

Off came the mask. "Much." The raspy breathing did not really back up this assertion, but Illya continued, "I was wondering if you could do me a small favour?"

"I've already done all the paperwork while you're lying around being waited on hand and foot."

Illya closed the book and rubbed his eyes; they looked red and sore. Napoleon regretted his facetious remark.

"Anything," he offered. "Don't worry about anything," he added, as Illya leaned back on the pillows. He lifted the chart from the foot of Illya's bed and studied it. "I see they're taking good care of you. How was the soup?"

Illya ignored the question. "My apartment needs to be cleared for the repairs. I've been told there is a team going in to start tomorrow. I believe most of my things are irreparably burned or smoke-damaged." He stopped a moment and took a few ragged breaths. Napoleon gently pushed the mask up to his friend's face. Illya tried to breathe slowly and deeply, but began to cough convulsively.

"Take it easy." Napoleon helped him back into an upright position. "Do you want me to go and salvage what I can?"

Illya closed his watering eyes and nodded. After a few moments fighting to contain the cough he said, "There are some things in the bedroom I hope may have survived." His voice held a note of wistfulness.

"I'll bring what I can, take your clothes to the cleaners. Don't worry."

"There is no point in replacing things unnecessarily." Illya's chin lifted slightly. The wistfulness had gone.

As soon as he could get away, Napoleon returned to his own apartment and collected two travelling bags. He had a key for Illya's place, although he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he had used it. As he opened the door, a sudden meow startled him and a small tabby cat materialized out of the shadows and preceded him into the apartment.

"Hey you, cat—out!" But it was too late. The cat had disappeared into the blackness.

Illya's apartment was a sad sight. Napoleon could not help feeling despondent as he swung the flashlight around and surveyed the blackened, burned-out shell of what had once been home for his partner.

It soon became obvious that nothing could be salvaged from the living room and kitchenette. The smell of burned timber was overwhelming. Even the window was cracked and blackened. The charred bookcase was filled with the corpses of Illya's books and a melted, distorted lump of vinyl was all that was left of his record collection. As Napoleon shone the light onto the blackened metal frame that was once a sofa, the cat appeared again and led the way into the bedroom.

This room had fared a little better because Illya had shut the door. Things were not burned in here, but everything was black with smoke damage. With a dispirited sigh, Napoleon placed the flashlight on the dresser and started to open drawers and closets to load what was left of his friend's worldly possessions into the bags. It was a depressing job—like cleaning out someone's things after they were dead. This is how it would be one day perhaps, for one or the other of them. With a shudder Napoleon worked as fast as he could emptying the drawers; clothes into one bag and other items into the other.

Tucked away at the back of the last drawer was an old shoebox. Napoleon opened it out of curiosity, shining the flashlight into it. Something gleamed gold in the light. Carefully, he lifted out a small icon—a Madonna and Child, gold painted on wood. He frowned; he hadn't been aware that Illya had anything from his former life in the U.S.S.R. but this looked Russian—some kind of memento, perhaps something from his family. Feeling a little guilty for prying, he shone the light into the box once more. Underneath where the icon had lain was a scrap of folded cotton, frayed and aged to dark grey, but it might have once been black. Except for the colour, it looked like a well-worn handkerchief.

The only other items were a gold ring that he had seen Illya wear and a pile of folded notepaper. Letters? He unfolded the top one—yes it was a letter, written in the distinctive black ink that Illya favoured. Love-letters? Napoleon folded the letter and replaced it in the box along with the little icon. Curious as he was, he did not wish to intrude upon his partner's privacy.

He added the shoebox to the bag, smiling at the thought that Illya might, after all, have a secret love life. Somebody back home in Russia perhaps? The letters were written in Cyrillic script. Maybe that was why he rarely bothered with girls, despite the fact that he was undeniably popular among the female personnel of U.N.C.L.E. judging by their reaction to the news of his injury.

But why would Illya keep the letters instead of mailing them? Napoleon shrugged his shoulders and continued with the task of salvaging what remained of Illya's home.

It didn't take long. There wasn't much else to find. Napoleon fastened the bags and prepared to leave. As he did so, the cat, which had been sitting on the bed, started to purr loudly. It lifted its hind leg in the air and began to wash. Napoleon reached down absently and stroked it. Something lying on the bed beneath the cat caught his eye and he pulled it out. It was a grimy piece of paper, folded into four. He opened it up to examine it more closely. There was Illya's handwriting again—another of his mysterious letters by the look of it. Napoleon stuffed it into his pocket. He would add it to the box later.

He took a final look around the apartment before shooing the cat out and closing the door behind him. He was dismayed at how emotionally drained he felt.

When Napoleon arrived at his own apartment, the phone was ringing.

"Napoleon, I thought we had a date?"

"Beverly—I'm sorry." Napoleon had forgotten all about the arrangement he had made. Dealing with Illya's belongings had been so depressing that the thought of making small talk with Beverly was suddenly too much to deal with. "I got held up—I'm only just in and now I've got a thumping headache. Do you mind if we make it another evening?"

"Oh poor Napoleon. Are you sure you don't want me to come round and kiss it better?"

"Ah—I don't think I would be very good company tonight."

"Well you just take some aspirin and have an early night, Napoleon." Beverly was a good-natured soul. If she recognized it as a brush off, she did not appear to hold a grudge.

"Thank you, Beverly. I intend to. I'm sorry to break our date. Don't think you can escape me though. We'll go somewhere special next time, I promise."

"I'll hold you to that, Mr. Solo. Goodnight and I hope your headache gets better."

He put the phone down with relief and went to his drinks cabinet to fix a large scotch. He took a substantial swallow of it before carrying the bags through to his spare bedroom. The smell of smoke was all-pervading and he hastily put the bag of clothes beside the front door so that he could drop them in for cleaning the next morning. Even the clothes he was wearing stank of the smoke. He decided to take a shower, went into his bedroom and began to strip off. He would take his own suit to the cleaners as well.

As he cleared out the pockets of his trousers, he found the crumpled letter he had picked up from under the cat. He put it down on his dresser, smoothing it out, and as he did so couldn't help noticing his own name among the Russian words. He looked at it more closely. It was dated the day before the fire, the day they had returned from Morocco. Illya must have written it when he got home.

Napoleon could read Russian better than he could speak it. He didn't have his partner's natural flair for languages, but he could get by in several and Russian was one of his better ones.

He had a short moral battle with himself, but it was really no contest. Curiosity won after seeing the mention of his own name. He began to read.

Dearest Boba,

Who was Boba? It sounded like a pet name. A girl? It sounded suspiciously like a diminutive for 'grandmother'. Interesting. He wasn't aware that his partner had any family still alive.

I am sitting up late writing to you after a trip to Morocco with Napoleon. We have been chasing a Thrush codebook, although it turned out to be a bit of a . . .

Here was a phrase he was not familiar with, but he knew what had transpired, so he translated it as a 'wild goose chase'.

Of course I managed to get myself concussed once again, this time by a large jar of olive oil, and ended up with a short stay in the local hospital. Fortunately I am none the worse for it now, although the same cannot be said of my suit, which will never be the same again. Napoleon brought me some spare clothes and teased me as usual, although it is usually he who claims for new suits, and I could tell he relished the thought of Alexander Waverly's face when he reads my expense form.

At this, Napoleon grinned. They always tried to score points off one another. His partner frequently poked fun at him about his expensive suits, especially when they suffered in the course of duty. He read on:

I'm feeling a little . . . tonight.

Frustratingly, Illya had used another word Napoleon didn't know. How did Illya feel after Morocco—after Napoleon's teasing on the plane? Annoyed? He had been annoyed for a moment, but not for long. Embarrassed? Depressed? Lonely? He had been a bit quiet, even for him. Napoleon frowned and felt uncomfortable. There were a lot of contenders for that word and none of them reflected well on him.

On the plane back to New York, Napoleon insisted on quizzing me about how I could sleep all night in the same bed as a pretty girl without anything improper happening between us. I ask you, Boba—why should that be so unbelievable? The girl was practically engaged to a foolish young man who caused the trouble in the first place. It was all very decorous between us. I hung a blanket down the centre of the bed. Napoleon says he could not have resisted, or else not slept at all with the girl so close.

Well, now perhaps he can imagine a little of how I feel those nights when he and I are forced to share a bed on assignment. With him so close, I lie there, pretending to be asleep, but my heart is aching for what I cannot have.

Napoleon's heart gave a great thud and began to hammer. He read this last part over three times before putting the letter down in disbelief. Was Illya saying what he thought he was saying?

With a shaking hand, he picked it up and read on, heart continuing to thump, but Illya then went on to describe the cat that had arrived at his door on several occasions before he finally let it in. He had apparently christened it Madame Minouche.

The letter was signed 'Your loving Illyusha.'

Guiltily, Napoleon folded the letter and put it back down on the dresser. He should never have read it. It was an unforgivable invasion of his friend's privacy. And he had a piece of knowledge he should not have been privy to unless Illya chose to reveal it. Napoleon knew the chances of his uncommunicative partner doing that were almost zero.

Uncommunicative. Illya never talked much, let alone about his feelings. Neither of them did; it was easier that way. Napoleon felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of knowing what he now knew, and consumed with guilt.

There was no way to undo what he had just done. The knowledge was there and it wasn't going away. He passed a hand through his hair and the smell of smoke assailed his nostrils again. A shower. He had been going to have a shower. Like an automaton, he finished undressing and walked into the bathroom. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he could see the guilty blush still suffusing his face and smell the rank sweat which had broken out all over his body, almost overwhelming the malodorous smoke.

He took a long, hot shower, scrubbing at himself as if that could remove the pall of guilt that hung around him. Then he turned off the hot and allowed needles of cold to sting his oversensitive skin. But still the erection that had formed almost the instant he had read that revealing letter would not subside.

Illya lay in his bed in the infirmary, hot and wakeful. His breathing was much better, although he still had the irritating cough. His lungs remained compromised and he would not be field certified for some time. He had obtained grudging permission to return to light duty the next day.

Any period of forced inactivity rankled with Illya and this was no exception. He suspected the doctor and nurses would be glad to be rid of him. His colleagues had visited and cheered him up somewhat. April brought chocolates, which Mark sat and ate. Then Napoleon sent a message to say he had rescued some things from Illya's apartment and was taking them home.


Such a loaded word. A word Illya had once wondered if he would ever be able to use again. He had lived in so many places since leaving Kiev, and yet none had really felt like home, until his little apartment in New York. And now once again he had no home.

His thoughts turned dark and bleak like the smoke from the fire. He rolled over in the hard bed, irritably pulled the blanket away and threw it to the floor. Why did they have to heat the infirmary so much? In the privacy of the small hours, he indulged in a few moments of longing for the cool of his own bedroom and the worn comfort of his own bed.

The following day saw Illya back on light duty down in the lab section. He was fiddling with a small electrical device, squinting at it, his eyes screwed up, when Napoleon entered.

"You have to get yourself some new glasses."

Illya looked up, blinking, and Napoleon was dismayed at how fragile his friend looked—his face pale and his eyes hollow, with dark smudges. However, he found himself wholly unable to meet those eyes when the Russian waved him to a seat on a lab stool.

"Sit down, Napoleon. Tell me what has been happening while I've been incarcerated. Everyone's treating me like an invalid."

"You are an invalid. Less than a week ago you were on life support."

Illya gave a snort. "Hardly that! It was a ventilator, that's all. Anyhow, I'm fine now." The last word was swallowed up by a fit of coughing. When it was over, Illya shrugged, sheepishly. "Well, almost."

"You're still a bit under the weather. You should go home early."

Illya frowned and stared down at the bench. Napoleon could have bitten off his tongue.

"Just in case you hadn't noticed, I have no home."

"Illya, I'm sorry." Napoleon sighed. Could he make this any worse? "Look, you know I mean my home is your home until yours is fixed up. Why don't you pack up early and go and make yourself comfortable? I'll bring some food when I come later." He hoped the offer of food would compensate for his careless remark, but it fell on deaf ears.

"I want to get this encoder finished before I leave and I have a mountain of paperwork to catch up on."

"It can wait." Napoleon looked at his watch. "I'm leaving in about an hour, barring emergencies. Will I see you then? I can fill you in on all the office gossip over dinner."

"I might be a little later. You go ahead."

By the time Illya's coded knock sounded on the door of Napoleon's apartment, it was well after 8pm.

Napoleon had determined that what he had read in the letter was not going to make a difference. Nothing needed to change between them. That shouldn't be too difficult—he was spy after all. All Napoleon had to do was to act as if nothing had happened.

But that was the problem. Since reading that Illya had secret longings for him, Napoleon had not been able to get a certain picture out of his head. It was the picture he had conjured up to amuse himself on the plane while Illya slept. The picture of his partner naked and aroused, but instead of Illya in bed with Janine, now he was in Napoleon's bed and he and Napoleon were . . . Napoleon felt himself harden with desire.

Napoleon was a sexual being, so naturally thoughts of sex intrigued him, but this new fascination was something he had never before envisaged. Up to now, sex with a man had not interested Napoleon. He knew there were plenty of men who liked it, for whom it was the norm even, but he had been brought up to regard it as a sin. On the other hand, he had also been brought up to regard masturbation as a sin and he disregarded that taboo. Was this so different? Last night, in bed, he had convinced himself that it was not. The resulting fantasy took his breath away whenever he replayed it in his head. He swallowed as it flashed before him now.

It was hard to imagine treating Illya the same as he always had. From Napoleon's standpoint, their relationship had already changed. Napoleon felt excited about the change—flattered but also disturbed. After last night he was keen to explore the possibilities it presented. But Illya knew nothing. Illya was still convalescent—whatever his assertions. Napoleon knew he must approach with caution and while his friend was in this physically and emotionally fragile state was not the time to confront the situation.

Illya appeared in the doorway. "Hello."

"Hi. Your timing is perfect. I'm just warming up the sauce. Spaghetti okay?"

"Uh? Oh yes, thanks." Illya looked distracted. "I—uh—need a shower but I'm afraid I haven't got anything to change into. My clothes are not back from the cleaners."

"Don't worry. I've put some things in your room to tide you over. They might be a little large, but at least they're clean. Have a shower if you want. Or do you want to eat first?"

"I'm not very hungry. I'll have a shower and go to bed."

This was not like Illya. "You have to eat," Napoleon admonished him. " Go and shower then come and have supper. You can go to bed after if that's what you want."

"All right."

As Illya went to shower, Napoleon set the table pensively. Already there was some awkwardness between them that had not been there before. He didn't know if he or Illya was responsible, but the comfortable familiarity they had shared almost from the beginning of their friendship seemed to be missing.

He frowned as he opened the drawer for spoons and forks. It must be his problem, because Illya did not know anything had changed.

But Illya too was feeling awkward. Although he and Napoleon had shared countless rooms in hotels on assignment, this was the first time he had actually stayed in Napoleon's apartment. On his partner's territory, he felt like an intruder. Being in this apartment with all Napoleon's things around, seeing him in his own environment, being so close. It was what he'd dreamed of, but it was also too much for him right now and the tension had already made him nervous and robbed him of his appetite. He tried to swallow down the knot of anticipation that filled him and wouldn't go away.

In the shower, he discovered the soap smelled of Napoleon. So did the shampoo and shaving soap. He breathed it in, enjoying the sensation it provoked. But then he sighed. How was he going to manage being this close to the man he longed for? It was one thing working together; then work distracted him, but they rarely socialised with one another. Napoleon had all his women friends, his dates. Illya was surprised he wasn't getting ready to go out tonight, but Napoleon was wearing old, comfortable trousers and a sweater. He would never go on a date less than immaculately turned out. He was dressed for an evening at home.

The combination of the shower and his thoughts left Illya almost too warm and rather breathless. He put on Napoleon's extravagant silk paisley pyjamas. The fabric felt soft and outrageously sensuous. Hurriedly, he covered up with his friend's summer robe, cinched in the waist on his spare frame, took a deep breath and headed for the living room once more.

Napoleon did a double take. Illya, pink and glowing from the shower, looked positively edible. Immediately he quashed the thought. This was Illya. His partner whom he worked with every day, not some woman he'd invited to his apartment for sex. The sound of Illya's wheezy breath as he approached reminded Napoleon that Illya was also still sick. Still, thoughts of his fantasy flashed into his mind and he cleared his throat.

"Ah—sit down. Here," he managed to get out. "Would you like some wine?"

Illya's downcast eyes and almost shy acceptance confused Napoleon still further. Did Illya suspect something? He might have remembered about the incriminating letter in his apartment and trusted Napoleon not to read it. Had Illya been through the bag of his possessions and noticed its absence? Napoleon hastily filled both glasses with Chianti and sat down opposite his friend, who began to eat quietly.

Neither spoke much during the meal. Illya really did seem tired. He kept yawning and didn't finish all his spaghetti. They finished the wine between them though. Napoleon discovered his appetite was not what he'd thought and finally pushed his plate away.

"I may have overdone the garlic."

Illya drained his glass and put it down, "No, it was very nice. Really." He pushed his chair back and rose. "I'll help clear up. Thank you for the meal."

Napoleon grimaced at the stiffness of the polite gesture. "You don't have to thank me. You can cook tomorrow—we can take turns. Just try to feel at home."

They washed the dishes in silence and then Napoleon turned on the TV. Maybe watching something mindless might relax both of them.

But Illya yawned. "Do you mind if I just go to bed?"

Napoleon felt guiltily relieved.

Illya had been tempted to call in at his apartment on the way to Napoleon's after work, but had resisted. Somehow he didn't feel ready to face the sight of the blackened shell, and he had only just got rid of the smell of smoke from his nostrils. Now the bag of possessions that Napoleon had brought from his apartment brought it back.

He sifted through the bag. Not much there—a few books, his brush and comb, a small shaving mirror, various documents that he was glad he had kept in the bedroom and his small box of mementoes from home. The box did not contain the last letter he'd written, but he had been reading it through in bed that night, so it was probably lost. Maybe that was for the best. Suppose he had died in the fire. Suppose Napoleon had found the letter and read it. Or any of the others. He began to cough, as if his lungs would turn inside out.

Once the coughing fit subsided he was bathed with sweat and shaky once again. He climbed into bed and lay back, exhausted. Even so, his mind was whirling and sleep seemed far away. He began to wonder about the stray cat, Madame Minouche. He was fairly sure he remembered Napoleon assuring him she was alive when he had first come round in the hospital. Illya didn't remember anything much after he went back into the blazing apartment, but he very much hoped he had managed to rescue the little cat after she had very likely saved his life.

"Illyusha—where have you been?"

He toed the dirt with his bare foot, staring at it intently. "I got the wood," he muttered, hoping to appease. He dropped a few thin logs and some twigs onto the step.

His grandmother cuffed his ear. "I've been waiting half an hour and this is all you bring? How do you expect me to make a fire with this?"

"But Boba—there's no more in the shed."

"And it takes you half an hour to find that out? What have you been doing?"

He dodged another cuff. "Nothing—I'll find more." He ran off before any more reproach came his way. He knew he had done wrong. Boba needed fuel for the stove and there was little to be had. It was his job to keep the woodshed filled. He ran towards the trees.

Some time later, carrying an armful of twigs and greenish wood, he returned to the house. Boba already had the stove lit and was stirring something. His baby sister, Masha, was crying from her crib in the corner of the room. She was hungry—always hungry. He smelled the cabbage and his stomach growled with anticipation, although he had long ceased to mention the hunger pain—it was a constant companion.

"That's all you could find?"

He shook his head, trying to appear regretful. He knew the green sticks would be difficult to burn. "May I go now?" He had something that was going to make Boba very happy.

Without waiting for an answer, he ran outside and across to the woodshed. A thin meow greeted him as he pushed open the broken door. A little tabby cat, no more than a kitten really, rubbed itself against his legs. He had found her on his way home from school, wandering among the rubble of a newly derelict house and it was obvious that she was tame. He had carried her home and hidden her in the woodshed. He picked the cat up and held her to his face. She was warm and soft and allowed him to cuddle her, purring noisily.

"You're my little cat, Sophia." He lifted her onto his shoulder. Her tail tickled his face and he giggled. "Did you catch some mice?"

There were mice in the woodshed. He knew this because Boba was often angry that they nibbled the potatoes stored there for the winter. "I should have a cat!" she had declared one day. That was last year when he was six, before his baby sister was born, before the German soldiers came and took things, when he still lived with Mama. Now there were no potatoes left, but maybe the mice were still there.

Suddenly he heard Boba's footsteps outside. "Illyusha! Inside now please. You have your studies to do before supper."

He called out. "I'm coming, Boba. But look what I have for you." Boba would be pleased when she saw the cat. He opened the door of the shed and walked out proudly, Sophia in his arms. She struggled when she saw the chance of freedom, but he held onto her tightly, despite her scratching claws.

"Her name is Sophia."

Boba smiled when she saw Sophia and stroked her. Soon Sophia was purring loudly once more and no longer struggling. "She's very pretty, Illyusha." Masha's crying was getting louder, frantic.

"I'm going to keep her in the woodshed to catch the mice."

"That is good, dushka. Now put her back in the shed so she doesn't run away."

"May I play with her later?"

"You have your studies. They are important too. The little cat will be fine in here. Come along inside—supper is nearly ready."

Supper was over all to soon—cabbage soup with a little potato as usual. Masha still cried after supper so he played with her until she fell asleep.

The following day, after school, he hurried into the woodshed to see his Sophia, but no matter how he searched and called, she was gone. Fighting tears, he ran to the kitchen, where Boba had the fire going already. There was a mouthwatering smell from the pot she stirred.

"Boba—Sophia is gone. I can't find her!"

His grandmother petted his hair. "Did you leave the door a little bit open?"

"No. I shut it." But the door catch was broken. She could have pushed her way out. He remonstrated with himself, tears welling in his eyes. "I must go to look for her."

He turned to go, but Boba called him back. "Come and eat your supper first. Today we have something special—meat."

"Meat! Yes—my favourite!" For the moment his loss was forgotten and they all ate the best meal they had eaten for a month. Little Masha did not cry with hunger that night and Boba let him read to her while she sewed patches on their clothes.

His only regret was that Sophia never returned.

Illya restlessly turned over in bed. Tomorrow he would go to the apartment and look for Madame Minouche.

Napoleon sat alone on the sofa and watched a chat show on the television, but even that mindless babble did not take his mind from his predicament. Eventually he got up and turned it off. He didn't want the noise to keep Illya awake, although his partner was well-known for his ability to sleep through anything. But Illya had looked so tired and wan when he'd come in, he'd eaten very little, most unlike him, and he'd been coughing a lot—more than in the infirmary.

But apart from being under the weather, what was Illya feeling? Napoleon tried to put himself into his partner's place. Was Illya content to be here in Napoleon's home or was it perhaps torture to him as he had implied in the mysterious letter? Napoleon thought back to the conversation he and Illya had on the plane. Napoleon knew he would have found sleeping in the same bed as Janine torture. Was being here a similar torture for his partner?

The idea of Illya secretly longing for him again excited Napoleon. Illya had certainly hidden it well, but now a few unexplained things made sense—the way he almost always obeyed Napoleon without question, his concern, although he tried not to show it, always coming back for him, no matter what the odds. Of course much of that was normal partner behaviour. Napoleon knew other pairs who were equally loyal to each other, but—there was something extra there. Napoleon was sure of it now. Sometimes he caught his partner gazing at him, blue eyes so intent Napoleon could almost feel them burning.

But he could do nothing. He had to maintain the status quo, for Illya's sake as well as for his own. He couldn't let his best friend know he had pried into his secret thoughts. Pangs of regret made him wince. But as he did so, something came to him. Did Illya really perhaps want him to find the letter—to read its contents? Was Illya subconsciously telling him his feelings?

For the hundredth time, Napoleon wondered about this other person, Boba, in whom Illya confided so intimately. Was it indeed a grandmother? That seemed most unlikely. For one thing, any grandmother worth her salt would strongly disapprove of the subject matter of that particular letter. Napoleon smiled at the picture it conjured up in his mind of an old, black-kerchiefed Russian babushka flinging up her hands in horror.

Black kerchief. He remembered the other contents of the shoebox: the icon, the ring, the piece of black cotton—a kerchief perhaps?—the pile of letters. A sudden insight made him swallow hard.

Illya heard the sound of the TV go off. Napoleon must be on his way to bed. It was typical of Napoleon to insist he come and stay in his apartment and he was grateful. Napoleon was not to know how he felt about him. Although they were together most the time at work, it was only in situations such as this, when there was nothing to occupy his errant mind, the difficulty arose. Some of his awkwardness must have shown because Napoleon too seemed almost nervous. This was not like his confident partner, but Illya supposed it was reaction to the shock of almost losing him. Illya knew he would have been the same had the shoe been on the other foot.

He pictured Napoleon preparing for bed. He had seen it often enough, although he generally pretended to be asleep. Mentally, he watched Napoleon take off each piece of clothing and fold it carefully. His trousers would go into the press so that the creases were just so. Mr Waverly had once suggested that Illya follow Napoleon's example and get himself a trouser-press. Illya had no idea what he was talking about. Napoleon had noticed his blank expression and had taken great pleasure in enlightening him. Illya did not take up Mr Waverly's suggestion.

Undressing Napoleon, even mentally was giving Illya a warm glow inside and giving way to a favourite fantasy of his—of being in this apartment with Napoleon. But instead of being sleepless in the spare bed, he would be in Napoleon's bed, with its fine sheets and downy pillows.

Illya shivered, and he felt his cock harden in his borrowed pyjamas. He sniffed the fabric of them deeply, trying to inhale that essence of Napoleon. It comforted him while fuelling his fantasy. His hand reached, almost of its own volition, under the waistband of the silky pyjamas, and touching himself he gasped, imagining it was his partner's touch.

In previous fantasies he had entered his partner, entered that forbidden opening. Now he turned onto his side and gripped himself firmly, as if pressing against Napoleon, asking to be let in. He buried his face in the pillow to stop himself crying out and his hand moved faster up and down his swollen shaft. He could smell Napoleon's soap, his scent on the pillow and he thrust hard into his hand and convulsed. His seed shot out of him, pulsing over his hand and soaking the pyjamas and the sheet.

Napoleon undressed and got into his own bed. He never wore pyjamas at home—part of the luxury of being in one's own place. He lay back, trying to make sense of this new paradigm. He wanted to act upon it, but Illya was in no way ready. He was still convalescent—he could hear him coughing again right now. Still, Napoleon's thoughts were again turning towards the possibility of sex, even though he guiltily fought against it.

What would it feel like to hold that hard, wiry body close? He recalled a time, several months previously, when he had rescued his partner from a Thrush dungeon. Illya had been strung up to a beam by the wrists. Napoleon had stood on a box to cut him down, lifting him to take the excruciating weight from his arms. When he cut the rope, Illya had slithered down into his arms, half unconscious with the pain. He had held him close, wobbling precariously on top of the box, until he was able to stand unaided. He could feel the strong beat of his heart, smell his body odour, and Illya's soft hair, damp with sweat, had tickled his nose. Napoleon admitted now it had felt good. Very good.

Once more, thinking of Illya had made him hard. So hard that he could not stop himself taking his cock in his hand and bringing himself to a quick and intense climax.

Distinctly discomfited, he cleaned up, put out the light and lay waiting for sleep to come.

But sleep would not oblige. After an hour of churning thoughts and frustration, he heard Illya next door, coughing and moving about. He decided to get up and use the bathroom and snatched on his robe. He could see the light on under Illya's door. On the way back, he knocked on the door and poked his head round. Illya was sitting up in the chair reading. He had on the robe, but no pyjamas.

"I saw the light on. Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," came the predictable reply.

Would you like something to drink?"

Illya looked up and closed the book. "That would be nice." He sighed. "Too much sleep at the infirmary."

He followed Napoleon into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Napoleon glanced at his partner's bare legs. "Feeling the heat?"

Illya started almost guiltily. "Um—your apartment is warmer than mine." He stared down at the table. "But not as stifling as the infirmary."

Napoleon poured boiling water onto the tea and stirred it. "This apartment has two heat settings: on and off. Sometimes 'on' is too much at this time of year. Would you prefer I turned it off?"

"No, really, it's fine." Illya continued to stare at the table, fiddling with the cord of the robe, tying it and untying it.

"I just wondered if you found it too warm." Napoleon stirred sugar into Illya's cup and handed it to him, wondering why the hell they were discussing air temperature. "I know you keep yours cooler."

Illya gave an ironic laugh. "It was a little too hot last time I was there." He stirred his tea some more but did not drink.

Napoleon groaned inwardly. He went to put a hand on Illya's arm, but at the last moment drew back, not wishing to make matters worse. "I didn't mean to be tactless," he muttered.

Illya looked up and flashed him a smile. "It's all right you know. You don't have to tiptoe around me as if I'd suffered a bereavement. I've lost everything before."

"I know that." Napoleon sipped his own tea, relieved that Illya seemed less tense than he had earlier. "But I found the state of your apartment quite disturbing. It must be much worse for you."

"You salvaged a lot and I am grateful. I did not relish the thought of the clean-up team raking through my private papers."

Napoleon gave a guilty start and he hastily swallowed some tea to cover it. "I—ah—I'm glad to have been of some assistance."

"They are just possessions," Illya mused. "I can replace them."

"Easier than replacing you! Fortunate you woke up and got out." Napoleon knew his words sounded trite, but he meant them.

Illya smiled again. "It was that stray cat. She woke me. She had appeared on my doorstep regularly for several days before we went to Morocco. I'm just grateful I let her in. In the end, she saved my life, I think."

"So I have Madame Minouche to thank?"

It was out before Napoleon had a chance to think. Damn. Damn. How could he be so stupid?

Illya didn't miss his gaffe. "Yes, Madame Minouche. How did you know her name?"

Napoleon went for a bluff. "I saw her when I went for your things. She showed me around." He laughed, but the laugh sounded false to his ears.

Illya frowned. "Really? And she introduced herself?"

"You know your neighbour, Mrs. O'Donnell, had to be taken to hospital too. She had smoke inhalation as well."

But Illya was not to be put off by that old dodge. "Yes, so I believe. But tell me how you know of Madame Minouche. I only named her the night of the fire."

"I believe we talked of it when you were in the infirmary." Napoleon, who lied for a living, was floundering in the face of Illya's accusation.

Illya clearly knew it. "You know we did not." He frowned and looked up at Napoleon, staring him straight in the eye with that gimlet blue gaze. "Napoleon?"

Napoleon looked away. He sighed in defeat.

"All right. I noticed it in a letter you left lying in your bedroom," he said quietly. "I found it after collecting your things, just as I was leaving. Madame Minouche was sitting on it as a matter of fact."

Illya's face turned white. "You read my private letter? How many other things did you pry into?"

"Nothing else, really. I only read the letter because I stuffed it in my pocket at the last minute. I found it later and wondered what it was. I shouldn't have read it, but I did." Napoleon was devastated with remorse.

"I trusted you, Napoleon. Why do you think it was you I asked?"

"I saw my name. Curiosity got the better of me. I'm sorry."

"It was in Russian," Illya whispered. His voice lacked anger. Napoleon heard only bleak despair.

Napoleon's heart ached. He would have given anything to play this scene over again.

Illya's world caved in on him once again. He stood abruptly and went into the darkened living room. Walking over to the window, he looked out at the lights of New York. His heart was hammering in his chest. This was a disaster. If Napoleon knew what was in that letter, then that would explain the awkwardness, the tension between them.

He heard Napoleon follow him. He couldn't face him, but he had to make sure. "You know then." It was a statement, not a question.

No reply.

"Did you read all of it?"

"Yes." Napoleon's voice sounded choked.

"And?" It was as if someone else was speaking. Illya's breathing felt ragged. His chest hurt.

No reply. He couldn't move.

And then Illya felt Napoleon's hands on his shoulders. Warm hands. Their touch seemed to burn through the fabric of his borrowed robe. The touch was gentle but firm.

I love your touch. I don't want to lose you, Napoleon. He tried to resist, but his heart was not in it.

The hands were turning him around. With dread Illya allowed himself to be turned.

He kept his eyes downcast. The betrayal staggered him, but his heart wouldn't listen. He wanted to bury his face into that smooth chest, tell Napoleon how he felt, how he loved him. Instead he said, "So now you know."

"I know."

"What will you do?"

"What would you like me to do?"

I'd like you to kiss me like you kiss those women you date. "I don't know."

Napoleon knew it was now or never. Nothing would ever be the same again. He had to come clean, even though he was still coming to terms with his feelings.

"Would it help if I told you I want you too?"

He felt a shudder go through Illya. Putting a finger under his friend's chin, Napoleon tipped his face upwards s that he was forced to meet those blue eyes. He looked straight into them.

"I want you too. On the plane from Morocco, I realised."

"Realised?" Illya's breath was quickening. Napoleon could feel him start to shake.

What had he realised? A lump came into his throat. Napoleon wasn't sure that he wanted to admit this, but he suddenly knew it was true. He swallowed hard, but still his voice sounded oddly husky, as if he too had inhaled smoke. "Realised I don't want you to be with anyone else. Realised I want you with me." There. It was out now.

Illya began shaking in earnest. Napoleon was afraid his friend's legs might give way. This conversation should not be happening while Illya was still so weak. But Napoleon was trembling too. Trembling with desire.

"Come here." Napoleon pulled Illya into his arms.

Illya melted against Napoleon, burying his hot face in his partner's neck, breathing in the scent of him. He could feel Napoleon shaking as much as he was, feel the strong pulse in his neck racing. And through their thin robes he could feel something else.

Napoleon was murmuring into his hair, his breath warm, "I was jealous. Jealous of Janine. I imagined . . . well, let's say my imagination ran riot while you were asleep."

Illya could not speak.

"Then, when I found the letter, when I read it—it made me want you more than ever. I didn't know how to tell you."

Illya ran his hands down Napoleon's back and slowly stroked the swell of his buttocks, pulling them towards him. His head was still buried in Napoleon's neck. Sometime, at some point in this surreal encounter, he had become desperately hard.

He felt the answering arousal of his beloved friend press against him, hot, quivering. Felt those burning hands rake over his own body, stroking and kneading. Warm breath in his ear whispered, "Come to bed."

Could this be real? Was he dreaming?

In a daze, Illya followed Napoleon into the master bedroom. Napoleon sat on the bed and slowly unfastened the tie of his robe.

Illya stood in front of him. "May I?"

Tentatively, he opened the robe and ran his eyes up and down the flushed body, taking in the flushed skin, the smooth chest, dark hair on limbs and . . . Napoleon wanted him all right. With trembling fingers, he unfastened his own robe and let it fall to the ground.

"Lie back. I want to look at you," he breathed.

Napoleon lay back on the bed and pulled Illya down beside him. He ran a shaking hand over Illya's chest, tangling his fingers in the golden hair that grew there. As he brushed a nipple, Illya hissed as an electric shock ran straight to his groin.

Then they were kissing. It was gentle, tentative at first, but deepened as each man explored with his tongue, tasting the other's essence. Illya couldn't breathe, didn't ever want to stop, didn't care. His hands groped for Napoleon's face, stroking the rough skin that chafed at his own. Below, their straining cocks met.

With a groan, Illya released Napoleon's mouth and snaked down his body, licking and kissing as he slowly worked his way down to the hard erection that twitched and jerked as Napoleon, groaning, pushed his hips up towards him. Illya's hand cupped the dark-fuzzed balls and his tongue darted around the swollen tip of Napoleon's cock, causing Napoleon to cry out.

"Oh God, Illya, please!"

Now Illya became bold. Taking his partner's shaft in his hand, he licked the length of it carefully, before suddenly engulfing it with his mouth. The taste—salty, musky and clean—made him dizzy.

"Oh, yes—more, more . . ." Napoleon writhed under his touch.

Illya pressed his own aching erection into the mattress as he lay between Napoleon's legs. Looking up at his partner, seeing the ecstasy on his face, he began to suck in earnest, putting all the pent up love he felt into his actions, drawing groans and gasps, until he felt the heavy balls draw up, tighten, and his partner cried out.


Napoleon's hips jerked upward and Illya's mouth was filled with warm semen.

As the last spurts oozed out of him, Napoleon sighed and lay back on the pillows. Illya swallowed convulsively, trying not to choke as the cotton-wool feeling in his chest threatened to erupt. When all was under control he closed his eyes, groaned and reached down to take his own tortured cock in his hand. He felt himself abruptly pulled upwards.

"Please." Napoleon turned him onto his back and before Illya could do anything he felt a firm hand encircle his own. "Let me."

Never, in his wildest dreams had Illya been able to conjure up the sensation that now overtook him as he thrust into that hard hand. When he felt a slick finger slide between his legs and press against his anus he cried out and exploded, thrusting and pulsing again and again until he was empty, drained and exhausted.

He was almost afraid to open his eyes. Was it a dream? Would he wake up and find himself sweating and tangled in his own sheets? Then a voice whispered in his ear. "All right?"

Relief. "All right." Very all right.

Then Napoleon was holding him close and Illya could feel his lover's still-hammering heart matching his own. He rested his head on his partner's shoulder and relaxed. The ache in his chest had quite gone. He felt himself being covered as the bedclothes were pulled up around them. He felt the stickiness of his emission between them but it didn't matter. He was with Napoleon. In Napoleon's bed. In Napoleon's arms. After only a moment or two, he slept.

Napoleon wakened with his head resting on warm skin. Not unusual. But this bedmate was hard, muscular, male. Illya.

Illya looked peaceful as he slept. His face was still flushed, pink and warm. He looked healthier than he had for days.

Last night had been a revelation to Napoleon. His fantasies about Illya in bed, passionate and abandoned, had more than come true. He had wondered what it would be like to kiss his partner and discovered it was as sweet as he'd imagined. Sweeter. He very much wanted to discover more.

Please let Illya feel the same.

As Napoleon moved to get up, Illya stirred and opened his eyes.


"Hi. Good morning."

Illya pulled himself into a sitting position. He rubbed his eyes. They were red with sleep but no longer dark shadowed and hollow. He smiled.

This was not the snarky Illya Napoleon knew—he could not remember a time he had seen Illya look so benign upon waking.

"Napoleon, I have a request."

"Ah—I occasionally grant requests first thing in the morning. Tea? Shower? Breakfast?"

Illya gave another small smile. "All of those, but it's about Madame Minouche."

"That cat! She started all of this." Napoleon swung his feet onto the floor.

But Illya pulled him back. "Exactly." He caught Napoleon's face between his hands and kissed him on the nose. "I feel I owe her a debt of gratitude."

Napoleon ruffled Illya's tousled hair. "Hmm. You always did have a sense of responsibility. Why do I feel a saucer of cream coming on?"

Illya raised his eyebrows. "It's more than that, I'm afraid. She's a stray."

"A can of cat food?"

Illya's eyebrows raised some more, hopefully.

Napoleon got it. "Here? You want to bring her here?"

"Just till my apartment is ready."

"And then you'll take her away?"

"I'll buy flea powder."

"Flea powder! Illya . . ."

"You'll never have mice again . . ."

"I don't have mice."

"Or rats . . ."

"That does it! You get your own breakfast." Napoleon got off the bed and reached for his robe, which was still on the floor where it had dropped last night. As he put it on, his expression turned wry. "Hmm. Well on second thoughts, I guess I do owe that darn cat."

"I knew you would see sense."

"But first you have to tell me something, purely to satisfy my curiosity."

Illya's eyes widened and his eyebrows rose quizzically. "Perhaps."

Napoleon sat back down on the bed, tying his robe. "That letter. Just who, exactly, is this person you were writing to—Boba? Was that the name?"

Illya sat up straight and folded his arms. "Napoleon, you have me—"

"I intend to, right after breakfast."

Illya grinned delightedly. "But a person has to have some secrets."

"So you won't tell me?"


"Should I be worried?"

"Most definitely not. You don't wish to have your apartment overrun with mice, I assume?"


"That is settled then. We'll fetch Madame Minouche after breakfast. Now, do you have any Cheerios?"

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