Dance into the Fire
Napoleon Solo, sitting in UNCLE's cafeteria, watched his new partner walk through the door and felt his face assume its most forbidding expression. It was worse than he'd thought. Not only was this Illya Kuryakin absurdly young—nineteen only, and being sent into the field—and inexperienced—fresh out of training—but he looked it. He was slight—Napoleon judged that blond head would only reach his own shoulder and he was not a tall man—thin—fragile looking, even. He moved with a lithe grace which did accord, Napoleon conceded grudgingly, with his #1 ranking in all his unarmed combat classes. He reached Napoleon and sat without asking permission. Napoleon's frown deepened. He had never before seen a man he would describe as beautiful, but this one was—wide blue eyes with a distinctive little upward slant, blond hair worn with deep bangs and long, pulled into a tight ponytail tucked into Illya's jacket collar. He had a generous mouth, and fair skin in which color was mounting under Napoleon's scrutiny. His expression revealed nothing of what he was thinking and it was only the tell tale flush which betrayed any unease. He had carried a tray over and now began to add ketchup to his fries.
"So," Napoleon said brusquely. "We are assigned together for the foreseeable future."
"Yes." Illya ate a fry. He was glad his hands were steady. Everyone had warned him about the man he was assigned to. 'He'll eat you alive' Alan had said, and 'He's had three partners this year and ran all of them off,' Shirley had cautioned. Illya had approached this meeting with a fair amount of trepidation and was concentrating on not letting it show.
"Finished your training last week."
Napoleon set the file aside. "You are too young, too inexperienced, and in short are going to be a liability to me in my work."
Illya lifted an eyebrow. "Mr. Waverly doesn't agree." It was a light accent but it betrayed his Russian origins as clearly as his high Slavic cheekbones did.
"Mr. Waverly," Napoleon began, then stopped. Alexander Waverly always knew exactly what he was doing. "Then you change my mind. Give me something I can set against this" he indicated Illya's file. "And don't tell me what good grades you got or how you went through Cambridge in two and a half years or about your prowess in the science department. Tell me something I can use."
Illya thought. He had by now given up even the pretense of eating and, seeing it, Napoleon felt an unaccustomed pang. He covered it with another scowl.
"If I say I am going to do something, I do it."
"You do, do you." It was actually a good response.
"Yes." Illya folded his hands in his lap How was he supposed to work with this man who had clearly disliked him on sight?
"Hmph. I suppose it's no secret that I did not request this partnership."
"No." Illya wanted to explain, to apologize, to excuse himself—Solo's cold stare seemed to demand it—but he didn't. He hadn't requested it either, had he. So he stirred his coffee.
"I see you're rated superior in all your combat classes."
"I suppose you need to be, considering your appearance. How much of my time and energy will go into fending off the unsavory element you're going to attract our way?" He said it brutally, wanting to shake that composure, but Illya only raised an eyebrow again.
"I have no response to that, Mr. Solo." What a terrible man this was. "As you can see," he touched his folder, "I can take care of myself."
"I hope so. Because the correct answer is none. None of my time and none of my energy." He stopped, then, "You shouldn't wear your hair so long. When you fight, your enemy could grab you by it."
"I wish one would try," Illya said and saw surprise register briefly in those eyes He smiled irrepressibly and, caught off guard, Napoleon smiled back.
"Am I as bad as they said I was?"
"Worse," Illya said truthfully. "Much, much worse." He pushed his tray away. Napoleon tapped it.
"Aren't you going to eat that?"
"Something," Illya said, "has interfered with my appetite." He said it lightly but Napoleon felt another twinge. What a bully he was, to be sure.
"Nonsense," he said gruffly. "Eat. You never know when you'll need it." He rose, then frowned down at his new partner. Illya was still stirring his coffee. "Finish your lunch."
"I am," Illya said because it was clearly what Solo wanted to hear. He nibbled on another fry, not looking up until Solo made an impatient sound and pulled the tray away, stalked off across the room. Illya bit his lip. Now what? He didn't know whether to leave the table or not so he just sat and after a minute a fresh steaming tray was placed in front of him.
"Can't eat it cold," Solo said and Illya looked up at him, startled. Then he smiled.
"Thank you, Mr. Solo."
Napoleon tried to frown again but for some reason it wasn't coming off. Illya had a remarkably appealing smile, full of a sweetness that touched Napoleon's heart. How young Illya was—too young and inexperienced for the dangerous assignments Napoleon was normally given. What had Waverly been thinking? He would need some looking after, at least in the beginning. Oddly, the thought did not irritate, as it had before. "You may as well use my first name," he said gruffly. "Because I'm not saying Mr. Kuryakin every time I need to get your attention."
"No fear," Illya said without thinking. "You have my full attention, Mr. Solo." Again that smile. "Napoleon."
And how different his name sounded, with that accent. Napoleon smiled too, a real smile, and saw Illya respond to it, face brightening, the anxiety lifting from his eyes. "Illya. I will see you in the morning. I need to brief you on the way I work."
"You don't need to keep calling me that. We're partners, right?"
This time the smile was positively incandescent. Napoleon held out his hand and Illya took it. "Partners," he agreed. They shook on it, then Napoleon tugged lightly at his ponytail.
"See you then."
EIGHT MONTHS LATER
It was their fifth mission. They had found to their mutual pleasure, that they worked well together—that Napoleon was a good teacher and Illya a quick learner, that they felt alike, thought alike, on most things, that they were good company for each other. Napoleon found that Illya could indeed take care of himself. Unsavory elements who perceived him as an easy as well as a tempting target were swiftly and unpleasantly set straight. Illya was a fierce, indomitable fighter, fast and utterly fearless. He never forgot instructions, never needed anything explained twice, and his formidable intelligence frequently awed his partner into respectful silence.
And Illya thought Napoleon was wonderful. He was filled with admiration for his new partner's abilities and when, after that first mission Illya ventured some suggestions on their next one Napoleon listened, and implemented most of what he heard. It was a relationship that was enormously satisfying to them both, and one which had recently begun to spill over into their off duty hours.
Today they, along with an auxiliary team of six, had infiltrated a Thrush compound in the remote forests of Washington. They had the information they needed, and were being choppered out just ahead of UNCLE's bombers, which were going to wipe the place from the face of the earth. Napoleon waved in another chopper. "Where's Lee?"
"He left with the first load," Illya answered. "Why?"
"Did he have the black box with him?"
"No." And Napoleon reflected briefly that he didn't need to ask Illya if he were sure, that he could take Illya's word as fact.
"That's what I was afraid of. I warned Dale that Lee was unreliable. I'm going back for it."
"I'll go with you"
"No. I want you on the next trip out. I'll catch the last one."
"That's an order, Agent Kuryakin." Napoleon's voice had sharpened and Illya lowered his eyes and nodded. Napoleon tousled his hair. "I'll see you at the checkpoint, Illya."
Illya wanted to protest further, to insist, but he only nodded again. "Yes sir."
He waited, watching with worried eyes as the choppers, one by one, landed and unloaded. When the last one had done so with no sign of Napoleon he approached the pilot.
"Where is Mr. Solo?"
"He wasn't at the rendezvous and time ran out. Headquarters is sending in the bombers now."
Illya turned away. He slipped around the back of the helicopter, in through the other side and when everyone had moved away started it up.
"Hey!" Dale Bryson ran up, ducking low to avoid the blades. "What the hell... turn that off!"
"I'm going back for Mr. Solo," Illya said. "Get out of my way."
Dale shook the door. "Open up! It was our original orders that we leave on time and wait for no one! Solo knew the risks when he came in!"
Illya's only answer was to shove the lever over and the helicopter rose. Dale fell backwards, sprawling full length on the ground and he shouted something but Illya couldn't hear him.
He pushed the little craft to its limit, knowing that UNCLE's planes were on the way. He wondered what would happen to him when they—because he would not leave Napoleon, could not—got back. He would probably be fired. The thought crushed him—he had never known such happiness as had been his over the past several months. He might even be deported. A sick chill shook him, then an ominous rumble reached his ears. The bombers! They were... then he saw them, a thin dark line on the horizon, coming in to obliterate the Thrust satrap and anything else in the vicinity. Illya brought the helicopter down, hovering just above the ground, straining his eyes and then Napoleon was there, climbing in and the sound of the bombers filled the whole world. The helicopter shot up and away, Illya trying to put as much distance as he could—a heavy thud came from behind them, followed by another, and another. The shock wave hit them, throwing the little craft forward. Napoleon was flung to the floor, then the wall, then the ceiling as they were tossed about. Illya clung to the controls, wrestling with them desperately to try and level them out. When he finally succeeded Napoleon hauled himself into the seat and pointed a finger at Illya.
"Who authorized this? Dale? I'll pin his butt to the wall!"
"No? Who then?"
"No—" Napoleon stared at him "You mean you just took off on your own?"
"Consider yourself on report," Napoleon snapped, and Illya nodded meekly.
He waited in Waverly's outer office while they discussed his fate. He didn't regret his actions; Napoleon was safe, and that was the most important thing, but he couldn't help feeling wretched over his aborted career, and fearful at the idea of being deported. When Napoleon finally emerged, face grim, Illya rose. "Go on in," Napoleon said shortly.
"Are—are they going to send me back?"
Illya swallowed. "You know. Back there."
"I don't know what" he couldn't maintain his angry tone. Illya looked so young, and so frightened—Illya, who had faced guns and fire and death without a qualm. He put a hand on Illya's shoulder. "But you should go in now."
"To Russia." Illya lifted his eyes to Napoleon's face. "Back to Russia."
"Over my..." Napoleon stopped. He had in fact defended Illya strenuously He had pointed to Illya's flawless record, to his youth, his relative inexperience. He had blamed himself, for not teaching Illya better. "No. They're not." He brushed Illya's nose lightly with the back of one finger. "Don't look so worried. It's all right."
"Yes. I promise. Now go on."
And it was all right. Illya received a stinging rebuke which he bore in silence, a written reprimand and five days leave without pay. When asked if he had anything to add, he pointed out that Napoleon had had the black box, which he had believed important enough to risk his life for.
"Mr. Solo is in a position to make those sorts of decisions. You are not. You are to follow orders and Mr. Solo ordered you to evacuate with the rest of the squad."
"Besides," another man said, "you risked not only your own life but an 812 Chopper, our top of the line model."
Illya's eyes widened. "You mean you'd rather lose Napoleon Solo than a helicopter?" he asked in honest surprise. "But he's the best we—you—UNCLE has!" There was a brief silence, while even Waverly had to bite his lip to suppress a smile, then he spoke.
"That decision was not yours to make, Mr. Kuryakin Have we made ourselves clear?"
"Thank you sir."
Illya turned, feeling rebellious He was going through the door when he heard someone—he wasn't sure who—say on a snort of laughter, "No wonder Solo wants to keep this one. He finally found a partner who shares his own high opinion..." the doors closed and Illya flushed hotly. But he wasn't sorry. He knew he should have obeyed orders—even Napoleon said so. But a helicopter could be replaced. How could they ever replace Napoleon's skill, his experience, his... the sight of Napoleon lounging on the couch, reading a magazine, clearly waiting for him, made Illya flush up again. What a good friend Napoleon was. He smiled at Napoleon shyly.
"Hello. You all right?" Napoleon walked him down the hall.
"If—I mean, I don't want to offend you, but I know you haven't been working for that long."
"If the days you lose are a hardship—if it puts you in difficulty—I could easily float you a loan. If you need it."
"Aren't you nice!" Illya said, astonished. "But no, thank you. It's all right. I have savings."
"Well, good. You know, I haven't really thanked you."
"Thanked me? For what?"
"For putting your life and future on the line to come back for me."
"Oh." Illya realized he had followed Napoleon all the way out to the garage, where Napoleon parked his car. "Um..."
"You saved my life."
"Let me thank you. Let me take you out to dinner."
"Out to dinner? Like at a restaurant?"
"Just like a restaurant." He smiled into Illya's eager face. "Is that a yes?"
"Yes." Illya felt shy again, under the warmth of Napoleon's smile, and averted his eyes. "Thank you."
"My pleasure." He meant it, and it was, it was his pleasure and Illya's too. They laughed and talked and Illya ate everything in front of him. They were sitting over dessert and coffee when Napoleon commented on it. "You were hungry."
"Yes I was." He had been. He had been famished. The thought of being sent back to Russia had haunted him for the past three days, while he waited for this hearing and food had only nauseated him.
"I thought you looked a little peaked," Napoleon was saying. "You have to learn to tell yourself that whatever you're worrying about won't be improved by fasting. You need to eat." He reached across the table, closed his thumb and forefinger around Illya's thin wrist. "You can't afford not to."
Illya couldn't answer. No one had ever cared in the least about his physical well being. It touched a part of him that had known only neglect, and his heart opened even further to his partner. "I'll try."
"Good." Napoleon toyed with his coffee spoon. "Whatever it was you left behind in Russia—it must have been pretty bad."
"Yes." He felt he owed Napoleon the truth, but it was not a topic he wanted to dwell on.
"And you must have been very young."
"Because you're still so young now," Napoleon said and reached across the table, brushed a strand of hair that had escaped the ponytail back behind Illya's ear.
"And you've been stewing over it since we got back?"
"You should have asked me. I would have told you it wasn't going to come to that."
"I didn't want to bother you—and you were so angry with me."
"Never hesitate to come to me, Illya." Napoleon was very earnest now. "I am your partner. I am on your side. Promise me you'll always come to me, if you're in trouble." It hurt, that Illya had been afraid to turn to him. He resolved never to let it happen again.
"All right. And you too, Napoleon. I am on your side, as well. No matter what."
"No matter what," Napoleon echoed. Their eyes met, and held, then Illya looked away. His heart was too full for words. Napoleon must really like him, to say all that. It seemed he could still feel Napoleon's touch on his face as he'd pushed that errant wisp of hair back, and on his wrist, where Napoleon had held it. He peeked at Napoleon through his eyelashes and blushed at Napoleon's smile.
"Well," Napoleon said, and cleared his throat. "More dessert?"
He laughed and after a moment Illya laughed too. "I don't know. Can you? After everything else?"
He signaled for the waiter and, still chuckling, ordered another bowl of cherries jubilee for Illya, who could indeed eat it all.
THREE YEARS LATER
Napoleon's team had finished their mission in this Iron Curtain country ahead of schedule but the planes had been there at the rendezvous point as planned. None of their communication devices worked here—without a prearranged pick up they'd have to walk across miles of hostile territory to reach a place where a call for help would be heard. Now Napoleon waited for the other team, headed by Steve Young. Illya had gone with them, as the one who best knew the type and value of scientific data they were gathering. He and Napoleon had done the preliminary fieldwork alone before the others arrived and so far their plan had unfolded flawlessly. Now here came the second team and it only took a moment to see something had happened There should have been fifteen men coming out of the field. There were eleven. And Illya—Napoleon looked again—was not among them.
"What happened to your men?" he asked Young, who shook his head.
"Someone must have tripped an alarm. They came up behind us and opened fire. We returned fire and they fell back, but we had to leave our dead."
"Are you sure they were dead?" He thought of Illya, wounded but alive, in the muddy field outside the main compound. "You checked?"
"No time. We called out—no answer."
"Sorry, Solo." Young turned and directed the placement of the computer tapes they had been sent for before loading his men onto the plane. Napoleon stood still.
"I'm going back for Illya," he said. Young's face registered shock and disapproval, but he only nodded.
Napoleon ran, backtracking Young's team, hearing the plane take off. He was truly stranded now—completely on his own. It had never been part of the plan for UNCLE personnel to be on the ground here—no arrangements had been made with local authorities and, if picked up, Napoleon would be lucky if UNCLE even acknowledged him. But the image of Illya, alone, in pain, tore at him and the idea of losing Illya was intolerable. Napoleon paused, surveying the road ahead, then slipped across it. Another mile and he was approaching the field that surrounded the installation they had penetrated. Mud sucked at his shoes as he went, looking for life, finding only bodies.
Illya struggled to keep his head up for another moment, another second, another breath, then had to lay it down. He shivered as the cold mud pressed against his face, in his hair, in his ear then, as his weight dispersed it, the mud was at his lips. He tried to turn his face up but his back was one flaming sheet of pain where the bullet had gone in, high and to the right, slamming him forward and down, on his face in the mud. The dark had taken him so quickly he'd had time for no emotion but surprise before losing consciousness When he awoke it was night, he was choking on mud and the pain was screaming through his nerves. He was soaking wet and freezing. He had tried to push forward, to crawl, to find some firm ground, perhaps some shelter from the coming day, but couldn't. It was all he could do to keep his face out of the mud and now even the strength for that was leaving him. He struggled against the inertia that was making it seem simpler to just lie there and die because he didn't want to die, he wouldn't—not when rescue would surely come soon. Napoleon would come for him. He clung to that thought tenaciously He didn't think about the danger, or about it being against regulations. He only thought that nothing would keep Napoleon from him, if he knew Illya needed him. Napoleon would never leave him lying here alone in this cold mud, hurting and freezing and suffocating. Napoleon would come. Surely he would. All Illya had to do was hold on until he did.
Warmth—warmth was near him and Illya turned towards it, wanting to reach out and hold on to the wonderful solid warmth of Napoleon's body but he couldn't. He was pressed against it anyway and then was lifted and there was a moving and a shaking that was too much for his injured back. He cried out once in pain, then darkness claimed him.
Napoleon ran. Illya was alive, that first contact had told him so, and now it was essential to get Illya out of this field because when the first light of day revealed no sign of enemies the guard within the enclosure would become bold enough to come out and check the bodies left there. So he clutched Illya against him and ran. He ran until his chest ached, until his legs burned and his shoulders throbbed in protest at his burden and Illya never moved. It was just as well—Napoleon had seen the wound in his back and if Illya were conscious the pain would be terrible.
Now Napoleon crouched at the side of the road. He was watching a wagon approach. It was moving slowly because the horse pulling it was grazing and the driver didn't seem to mind. He leaned comfortably against a stout wooden partition and behind him was hay, piled high, its fragrance reaching Napoleon where he hid. He wanted to get them on the back of that wagon somehow, without the driver's knowledge. They could conceal themselves there and ride all the way to Krychka, a sizable town almost at the border. From there Napoleon hoped his radio would work. It would be difficult to get both of them on while the cart was moving, but Napoleon was bracing to do just that when it stopped altogether. The driver climbed off, said something to the horse, and went into the woods, presumably to answer a call of nature.
Napoleon bent low and ran up behind the wagon. He pushed Illya on then hopped up himself, digging, burrowing, needing to get them covered before the driver returned in case he happened to check his load before continuing. He got them both deep within the hay, tunneled up with his hand to make air holes and, as the cart began to roll forward, relaxed. This was as good a situation as he could hope to find. And Illya was still alive—he could feel Illya's warm breath against his neck, and right now that was all he cared about. Illya shivered, and Napoleon pulled him closer, trying to assuage the chills that were shaking him. He reached behind, where the blood was still seeping, and pressed a handful of hay against the wound, pressed hard. Illya moaned and Napoleon covered his mouth. The wagon jolted violently, wheels dropping into what seemed a series of holes, then pulling free. Illya cried out against the shock and the pain and Napoleon's hand tightened, enforcing silence. At the same time he tried to roll Illya a little over on top of him, trying to take the jolting with his own body, shielding Illya as best he could and it must have worked, because Illya quieted again. But Napoleon kept his hand there until finally Illya's eyes opened.
He was in Napoleon's arms. The thought lifted him from unconsciousness. That was why he was so warm, and why the shaking all around him didn't touch him, and why he felt safe despite the pain. Napoleon had come for him, just as Illya had known he would. Why was Napoleon's hand over his mouth? It wasn't unpleasant, it put Napoleon's scent right in his nostrils and made him feel even safer, but still he wondered... he forced his eyes open and was looking into Napoleon's own eyes, which lightened at the contact. Napoleon put a finger to his lips and Illya blinked at him, not really understanding. Seeing that, Napoleon put his lips to Illya's ear.
"The gentleman driving this hay cart does not know we are on board." His voice was barely a breath. "We want him to remain in ignorance. Do you understand?"
Illya nodded and Napoleon lifted his hand "You saved me," Illya said, or rather mouthed.
"You would have done the same for me," and because it was no more than the truth Illya nodded against him. His back hurt very much and he felt sick—another chill made his teeth chatter and Napoleon's lips brushed his ear again.
"First time shot?"
"It's a terrible shock to the body Because of the velocity. It's normal to feel like crap."
Illya nodded again. He felt reassured. Napoleon knew all these things. How fortunate he was, to have been assigned to Napoleon. He smiled, thinking of it and next time Napoleon looked at him he was asleep, and the smile lingered on his mouth. Napoleon settled Illya more carefully against him and tucked hay up behind him to keep him still, deeply thankful for the warm, living body turned so trustingly into his own.
The displeasure that fell on Napoleon when they returned was severe. For the first time the possibility of separating them was discussed. It was Alexander Waverly who vetoed it, citing their record, their string of successes. Napoleon had not betrayed any secrets, had jeopardized no operation—only his own life. He was officially reprimanded and, later, Waverly had taken him aside.
"You put Mr. Kuryakin in a dangerous position. Someone might well try to use him to get to you."
"I cannot be gotten at—by that route or any other."
"Professionally is all that need concern UNCLE. As for the rest—all I can do about that is make the penalty sure—and terrible." He meant it. And over the years it had occasionally been necessary to teach that lesson, because if you had a vulnerable spot—and he had—all you could do was guard it.
TEN YEARS LATER
Napoleon frowned at the notice in his hand. An international conference was being held at a Manhattan hotel for selected supervisors above a Level Two ranking, and he was invited. Everyone was required to stay at the hotel which seemed ridiculous to him, living in town as he did, but the whole event seemed ridiculous to him anyway. He ran his eye over the list of workshops and scowled. Nothing there he needed. A waste of his time. And he was asked to bring a guest. His scowl deepened. Most executives at his level were married. He himself wasn't even seeing anyone, and as he thought of the women he'd been casually dating he dismissed them. He'd go alone then. He wasn't there to socialize, after all. And... he was scanning the list of in room movies when he saw a little blurb advertising a Marx Brothers film festival the first night of the conference. Napoleon smiled, looking at it.
He and Illya had been shadowing a suspected double agent. They had trailed him across town, sat in a coffee shop while he had a doughnut, and now he was entering a movie theater where, according to the marquee, the Marx Brothers were starring in 'Duck Soup'. He and Illya had waited a few minutes before buying their own tickets. In the darkened theater they had settled where they could see their man clearly, and were between him and the exit. Napoleon had bought popcorn so they would blend in better, and he had passed it to Illya, who began devouring it. He was running possible scenarios through his mind when he heard Illya make a smothered sound. Curious, he peered at his partner in the dim light and saw that Illya's hands were over his face, and his shoulders were shaking. Concerned, he leaned in.
"Are you all right?" Illya nodded and then came that sound again, a—was he choking? Napoleon grabbed Illya's hands and unceremoniously pulled them down. Illya's face was sparkling with mirth.
"I'm sorry," he gasped "It's just—I've never—" he went off into a peal of laughter at the antics on the screen and Napoleon couldn't help it, he laughed too.
"For Pete's sake, Illya. This is hardly the recommended..." Illya was laughing so hard now he was holding his sides. "At least we're blending in," Napoleon finished and Illya turned his face into Napoleon's shoulder in an attempt to muffle the sound.
"I'll stop, Napoleon, I promise..." he ventured another glance at the screen and went off again. The scent of Illya's hair was sweet in Napoleon's nostrils and the contact was so unexpected... he cleared his throat.
"Sit up. This isn't that kind of theater. We won't blend in at all if they think we're making out."
"What a thing to say!" Illya pushed himself upright. "I'm all right now, I am..." he slid back down, nearly horizontal in his seat, laughing helplessly. He stayed like that and Napoleon laughed at him and then their man rose and started up the aisle. They went after him at a discrete distance and the rest of the day passed as usual. But Napoleon thought of it now.
It seemed like another world, so completely had things changed. Now he spent his days running his departments with an iron hand and Illya spent his supervising the science section. But their friendship had not changed, had only deepened with the passing years. Could he possibly—but how could he justify—he called Illya.
"Come up here, to my office."
He came in a few minutes later and Napoleon looked at him affectionately. "What are you up to next weekend?"
"Nothing really." He was actually planning on going hiking with a friend but if Napoleon were making plans for them... "Why?"
"Look this over and find something you feel you need to take." Napoleon tossed the flier at him. Illya shook his head.
"No, thank you." He was disappointed. Napoleon only wanted to send him to a seminar?
"I said find something."
"But it's all nonsense."
"What about this?" Napoleon pointed to a lecture entitled 'Staff Meetings in the New Era'. Illya pushed it away.
"I don't need that. I do fine with my staff meetings."
"You don't have them at all. And you're supposed to."
"We gather briefly after the departmental meeting and that's enough"
"It's within regulations—barely—but you could do better."
"It's a waste of time. Sitting around talking about work instead of doing it."
"I am required to attend this function," Napoleon said. "I am also expected to bring a guest, and it has struck me that the only person I can tolerate spending that much time with is you. But I can't justify bringing you unless there's a workshop you're interested in, and that I as your supervisor can legitimately recommend. It's two hours out of your weekend, Illya. And in exchange we get a room, all meals paid for and the chance to watch this." He gave Illya the television guide and saw his face, already glowing from Napoleon's invitation, brighten further.
"Oh, Napoleon. I can't believe you remember that."
"I thought we could retire from the opening festivities at a reasonable time, say 8:30, and be comfortably ensconced in our beds, drinking fine wine and watching television—and laughing all we want. What do you say?"
"So you're on board for staff meetings?"
"Does that mean I have to have them now?"
"Pass it on to George. It's right up his alley." George Piper was Illya's lab partner.
"You're right." Napoleon was. George would love railroading everyone into regularly scheduled meetings. "All right. Yes."
"Hold on." Napoleon put through a call to Jake Davenport, his own supervisor. "My former field partner, Illya Kuryakin, has expressed an interest in the workshop on staff meetings," he said smoothly. "It is an area I would recommend he develop." He listened. "I understand that. But as it happens, my expected companion for the event is unavailable. Illya could come as my guest." He laughed. "No problem, sir. Illya and I have certainly shared less pleasant accommodations. Yes sir. Thank you sir." He disconnected and grinned at Illya. "All set."
"Who canceled?" Illya told himself he didn't care that he wasn't Napoleon's first choice. How could he be, really?"
"No one. I made it up."
"Oh. Napoleon, you know what they'll say, don't you?"
"Yes." He laughed again. "But they say that anyway. Why? Does it offend you?"
"No." Illya looked away. They had never discussed the ubiquitous rumors that the two of them were more than friends. "It's not as if it's an insult. It just happens not to be true."
"That's exactly the way I feel about it. I suppose I'd be proud, if it were true. In fact, if it were true there would be no need for whispers and gossip and silly rumors. I wouldn't hide it."
"Oh." He felt warm all over. "Um, I'd be proud too."
"There you go. I'll probably talk to you before then, but I'll meet you in the hotel lobby that morning. All right?"
"In fact, why don't I pick you up?"
"All right. Thank you."
"No problem. 7:30 that morning okay?"
"Good. See you then."
The seminar on staff meetings had been fully as dull as Illya had expected. But he had dutifully listened, and taken notes, and collected handouts for George. When it was over he went to the pool and swam, then showered and dressed for dinner. He hadn't seen Napoleon since their arrival, but the first thing he'd done in the room was to double check the television schedule for that night—yes, there were six hours of Marx Brothers films scheduled. He hoped it struck him as funny as it had back then, all those years ago. Napoleon would be disappointed if he didn't enjoy it. But he would. He was sure of it. And they'd be together.
Illya supposed he hadn't been entirely honest with Napoleon the other day. The truth was that far from being offended by the rumors, he wished they were true. The sight of Napoleon Solo set the blood rushing through his veins, Napoleon's voice made his knees weak, Napoleon's touch shocked his body with intimations of a pleasure he'd never known. The truth was that Napoleon's warmth, his never failing kindness towards his young partner, his consideration and the blatant tenderness with which he cared for Illya when Illya was sick, or injured, or weary, all these things and many more had captured Illya's heart from the very beginning, and Illya had surrendered it willingly. The truth was that he was putty in Napoleon's hands, and Napoleon must know it but he had never taken advantage, had only cherished Illya all the more for his vulnerability. And sometimes—especially lately—the way he looked at Illya seemed to suggest more, to sugges... something. And when Napoleon's eyes lingered on his face, or when Napoleon touched him, lightly, as if he couldn't help himself, Illya felt hot and cold—dizzy, and full of a nameless yearning.
Dinner had been excellent. Illya, who had a hearty appreciation for good food, had gone back to the buffet three times He was sitting at a table full of people he didn't know, but it had been entertaining to listen, and observe, with a polite yes or no being all that was expected of him. Napoleon was, of course, sitting at the head table. He looked serious, and focused, by which Illya judged him to be bored out of his skull. He wondered if they would have to miss the beginning of the movies—it was 8:35 now and Napoleon had said... but no, Napoleon was standing, speaking to everyone at his table and then moving across the room towards the elevators. Illya waited for his cue and when Napoleon adjusted his tie as he pressed the button he made his own farewells and reached the elevator just as the doors opened.
"I'll bet you thought I forgot," Napoleon said, smiling. He was in excellent spirits. It was as if in and among the myriad obligations that filled both their days he and Illya had managed to steal the next several hours for themselves. It was a rare treat. He wondered why it should be so rare, when it was clearly the best thing in his life.
"You know," Illya began, following Napoleon down the hall, "They're going to say even more things about us after this."
"I'm sure someone is saying something even as we speak," Napoleon said and opened the door. He gestured Illya in and followed him, putting on the bolt and the chain. They both washed up and got into pajamas, and when Illya came out of the bathroom Napoleon handed him a glass of vintage blackberry brandy. He had taken all the pillows and stacked them against the headboard of his bed, creating a cozy nest for two. Comfortable there he grinned at Illya, sitting cross legged right beside him, hair loose and spilling down his shoulders. "Ready?"
They laughed themselves silly. By the middle of the second movie Illya had put his face in Napoleon's shoulder again, weak and gasping and Napoleon didn't tell him to sit up, he put an arm around his shoulders and gave him a tissue for his streaming eyes. They watched and talked, laughed and drank blackberry brandy and the closing credits found them in a tipsy heap on the bed, giggling helplessly. Finally, when the Star Spangled Banner had finished playing Napoleon pointed the remote at the TV and turned it off. Then he let his arm drop across Illya's back again. Illya's head was pillowed on Napoleon's chest where he had collapsed after an aborted attempt to refill his glass. Napoleon had leaned over to do it for him, and it had seemed perfectly natural to settle Illya back down once the task was accomplished, to keep Illya's head there and moreover to stroke his hair off his face and then to keep stroking it because Illya's hair was soft, and cool, thick and... he lifted a strand to his face, pressed his lips to it.
Illya turned, then, within the circle of the embrace he was somehow in and looked at his partner, eyes wide and questioning, lips slightly parted, face flushed from laughter and brandy and Napoleon kissed him.
It was like touching a match to tinder. Desire blazed up, fierce and hot and Illya pressed himself against Napoleon and kissed him back. There was no room for thought, there was only this wild flaming need to be closer, to drink in the scent and taste and feel of the other, to hold on fast to the body of the other. Illya felt Napoleon's mouth trail heat across his throat, to his ear, behind his ear, back to his temple, his forehead—a brief moment of tenderness as Napoleon cradled Illya's head between his hands and then their lips met again, and parted. The flames took them both and they clung to each other in the firestorm of passion, clung as passion subsided, clung as sleep pulled them under.
They woke, briefly, hours later as the sun was coming in through the window. Their bodies were still entwined and it was easy for Napoleon to shift position just a little, to trace sizzling currents across Illya's bare skin—when had they undressed? He didn't even remember. It was easy to roll over on top of Illya and take him, setting the pace, holding himself in, losing control at the end anyway and losing himself, too, crying out loud and sealing their mouths together so no one would hear them, tasting Illya's own cry and crushing Illya to him. He fell asleep like that, sprawled on top of Illya who wriggled a little, made himself comfortable and fell asleep too.
Napoleon kissed the corners of Illya's mouth when he woke to find him smiling in his sleep and Illya stretched, opened his eyes. "Hello, Napoleon."
"Hello yourself. Sleep well?"
"Yes." They smiled into one another's eyes. "What time is it?"
"8:05. Breakfast is in less than half an hour."
"I wish we never had to get up at all. I wish we could just stay in bed all day long."
"You do, do you." He began to caress Illya's buttocks. "But we can't."
"I can." Illya arched his back, shivered as Napoleon's hands slid up his sides.
"That's right. You put your two hours in yesterday." He couldn't get over how smooth Illya's skin was, and how soft—and Illya tasted so good. Illya moaned. "I'll tell you what. I can't possibly skip this conference."
"I know." Napoleon nibbled at the nape of his neck.
"But I can be late."
"Oh, very late. I'll miss breakfast altogether and the keynote address as well. How's that?"
"That was fine, and they closed around each other again, made love again and at the end Napoleon gasped "Illya, Illya. I love you." It was enormously freeing, to say the words. "I love you with my whole heart. Tell me you love me too."
"I do, Napoleon," Illya said when he could talk again. "I love you. I think I loved you that very first day when you got me a hot lunch because I didn't eat mine. I'll love you forever."
"I will love you forever too." He held out his hand, solemnly, as on that first day and Illya took. "Partners," Napoleon said as he had then, and Illya nodded.
"Partners," he agreed, and smiled, and it all seemed to call for another kiss which led to more, in the big bed. This time neither was inclined to sleep, and both were hungry, so Napoleon called down for an enormous breakfast to be delivered to their room. They ate voraciously and Napoleon, who had seen the waiter's expression as he took in the one rumpled bed, laughed out loud.
"This will fuel the gossip," he said and began unbuttoning Illya's pajama top, which Illya had scrambled into at the knock on the door.
"Aren't you worried they'll send someone looking for you?"
Napoleon got up without answering, crossed the room and opened the door just enough to slide the 'Do Not Disturb' sign onto the knob "There," he said, and came back over to bed. He began to clear away the trays and plates that had accumulated there, then gave it up as being too time consuming. Instead he ripped the covers off of the unused bed, stretched out and beckoned. Illya abandoned his omelet and leaped across the space separating the two beds, into Napoleon's arms and the flames rose high around them once more.