Napoleon Solo winced, and stopped drying his hair to rub his left arm. He had woken to a dull ache, like a pulled muscle, although what he could have done to it was a mystery. Reached for his coffee cup too fast? Adjusted the contrast on his computer monitor too enthusiastically? It had been many years since he had done the sort of work that could cause an injury. Now he ran the New York Section with a will of iron. He tried to keep his body in similar shape, but sessions in the gym, however rigorous, were no substitute for the heart stopping adrenalin fueled days in the field. He had worked out yesterday, as usual, but could recall nothing that would have hurt his arm. More likely it was general tension. His jaw hurt too, as if he had been grinding his teeth in the night. Even more unusual than that, he didn't particularly feel like going to work this morning. He felt heavy and depressed, slightly nauseas and filled with a near paralyzing sense of foreboding. If he were a superstitious man, he would have stayed in bed for the remainder of the day. Instead he finished getting ready, and left for UNCLE headquarters.
The premonition of impending doom lifted when he sat at his desk and looked at his appointment schedule. Illya Kuryakin was due in at eleven o'clock to review his latest funding application. Napoleon smiled for the first time that day. It would be good to see Illya. He would approve the request, of course—Illya had never failed to produce results before, and he would not fail now. The meeting was a formality, nothing more. But what a pleasant formality it was. Just the thought of seeing Illya made his spirits rise. He'd have to set something up for them while Illya was there. It had been—what, three weeks since that dinner at Ianucci's? Too long.
Napoleon had achieved what he considered to be a workable stasis in his private life. He dated—not as frequently as in his younger days, but once or twice a week at least. The dating almost always led to sex, and never led further. His sex drive was strong, and if not attended to could be a distraction, so he attended to it with a minimum of fuss and bother and expected nothing more from his temporary companions.
His emotional life he had settled on Illya years ago. Illya was his confidant, his best friend. Illya's smile warmed his heart, Illya's loyalty gave him strength, Illya's friendship was the only thing besides work that made his life worth living. He told Illya things he would never tell another living soul, and knew his secrets were in safe hands.
He had wondered if there would ever—could ever—be more to it than that, wondered if maybe he could give Illya everything. How good it would be, him and Illya, and no more chasing after women. He was drawn by the image, but it frightened him, too, the depth and permanency of the commitment it would entail. And what if Illya said no? He had no clear picture of Illya's response to any such—proposal—from him. Sometimes he thought Illya was equally drawn to him, that Illya would gladly abandon his own curiously detached sex life and turn all the intensity and capacity for passion, that Napoleon had only seen in the field, on himself. Napoleon had come very close, at those times, to speaking. But he never had, constrained by his own caution and Illya's cool—seemingly effortless—retreats to the comfortable plateau their friendship had become. Which perception was real? And if he guessed wrong, if he spoke and Illya said no—then what? He had no clear picture of that, either, so he held his peace. And whenever the yearning for that shared life became too strong—like now—he would change his mental track. Like now.
He would have food sent in—Illya was always hungry, and would happily settle down for an unexpected repast. It would prolong the meeting, and lead naturally to a dinner invitation for the weekend. Yes, he would do that. If only his arm didn't ache so—and the pain had spread to the middle of his back now.
Illya came in right on time, and set a thick file folder down on Napoleon's desk with a thump. "Here it is, Napoleon, all ready for you to sign on the dotted line." The late breakfast Napoleon had ordered arrived then, and Illya fell on it with relish. "Thank you," he said as he applied ketchup to his eggs. "How did you know I'd be hungry?"
Napoleon smiled. "It seemed a safe bet." He rubbed his shoulder again, and saw Illya's eyes narrow in concern. For some reason that concern irritated him. He wasn't so old that Illya needed to worry about his health.
"Did you hurt your arm?"
"If I did I wasn't aware of it. Probably just a sore muscle."
"And you're not eating. Are you well, Napoleon? You look..." he paused, surveyed Napoleon. "Not well," he concluded.
"I'll live." He was more irritated than ever, and didn't know why, because he was grateful for Illya's concern even as his voice sharpened. It was of a piece with his depression, moods seemingly outside his true feelings.
"Let me see it." Illya got up and came around behind him. He began a careful massage, working the shoulder. Napoleon couldn't relax into it, though, and that annoyed him even further. After a moment he made an impatient gesture.
"Enough." Something was very wrong, and he didn't want to think about what it might be. He would think about work instead, and as hard as he could. "Let me see this proposal of yours, since you're obviously finished eating."
"No I am not, and you can see it for yourself." Illya sat back down and pushed the file across Napoleon's desk. Napoleon exhaled.
"Now you're offended. This isn't the time, Illya." He wiped his forehead, surprised to discover he had broken out in a cold sweat.
"I'm not offended. Napoleon?" Illya leaned across the desk and peered at him. "Napoleon?"
Napoleon couldn't answer through the pain. It crushed him into his seat, like a ton of bricks on his chest. Well damnation, he thought quite clearly. I believe I'm having a heart attack. He pulled at his tie, trying to loosen it but his fingers fumbled then fell. Blackness was rising around him like a tide.
The last thing he saw was Illya coming over the desk at him, and seeing that made it easy to let the blackness cover him. Illya was there. Illya would... would... and then Napoleon didn't see or think anything at all.
Illya hit the intercom button as he scrambled across Napoleon's desktop, sending breakfast items flying. "Medical emergency in Mr. Solo's office," he snapped, then he caught Napoleon by the shoulders, pushing him up from where he had landed face down on his blotter. His mouth was seeking Napoleon's even as he brought him down to the floor, and he gave the first rescue breaths as soon as Napoleon was flat on his back. Then he felt for a pulse, his own heart hammering. Nothing. It was what he had expected—the awful greying of Napoleon's face as he had pitched forward had told him as much. He began artificial respiration, concentrating on the rhythm, forcing out of his mind the pictures it wanted to show him. Napoleon's eyes, locking onto his in that final moment of lucidity, silently asking for help, for rescue as in the old days. Pictures of a bleak, lonely future without Napoleon. He paused, felt for a pulse again. Still nothing. Grimly, he bent to his task.
It seemed hours before help came, and when it did Illya was pulled unceremoniously off Napoleon. He stood watching while they made a quick examination. Napoleon's eyes were open and staring, his face, restored to a more natural hue by Illya's ministrations, was slack. A thin line of saliva trailed to his chin and Illya wondered whose it was, his or Napoleon's. Then the crash cart was opened, and the defibulator paddles applied.
Illya wanted to turn away from the sight of Napoleon jerking in response to the electricity but he didn't. It would feel like abandonment, so he forced himself to watch. The medics conferred, hooked up a monitor and shocked Napoleon again. This time a beeping came from the machine, wild fluttering blips at first but then it settled down into a regular pattern. Napoleon gasped, a choking, wheezing sound, and Illya released the breath he hadn't known he was holding. An oxygen mask was placed over Napoleon's mouth and nose, he was lifted and strapped to a gurney, then it was wheeled swiftly from the room. Illya tried to follow, but was stopped by a medic with a clipboard.
"If you would tell me exactly what happened," she said, and Illya gave his information as clearly and concisely as he could. He repeated Napoleon's complaint about his shoulder, described the way he kept rubbing it, the sweating, his greying face and sudden collapse. The young woman finished filling in her form.
"Thank you," she said. As she hurried away she paused, looked back at him. "Good job," she called. "You may have saved his life."
Illya nodded. Had he? Had he saved Napoleon's life? Had he come to the rescue, as Napoleon's eyes had asked him to do? He hoped so—with every fiber of his being he hoped so. Without Napoleon—what was there for him? Nothing. Well—work. His life had consisted of those two poles—Napoleon and work—for so long now. How could he bear to go back to work and nothing? He couldn't. But what choice would he have? None at all. He straightened his shoulders, and went down the hall towards his office. Napoleon would be inaccessible for a time, so he would clear his desk and turn over any open projects to his lab partner George Piper, preparatory to beginning his vigil at Napoleon's bedside.
The word spread swiftly. By the time Illya had finished what he needed to do, the news that Napoleon Solo had suffered a massive coronary was all over headquarters. People offered congratulations to Illya for his quick response. Those who knew him offered their sympathy. George, who knew him better than anyone except for Napoleon, gave him an awkward one armed hug and promised to hold down the fort for the next few days—"and longer, if you need it," he added and Illya nodded. He didn't know how much time he would need. If Napoleon—died—he forced himself to think the unthinkable word—then he would be back immediately. If not—who knew? Napoleon could be in for a long hard convalescence. Illya would support him to the best of his ability, just as he knew Napoleon would support him, if their positions were reversed.
On his way to the medical wing several people tried to engage him in discussions of Napoleon's physical condition, of how shocking it was, how you never really knew what a day would bring, and so forth. Illya listened with one eye on his watch and one hand on his communicator, excusing himself quickly. As he walked away from the third such encounter he clearly heard the conversation begin again behind him.
"I thought they were friends. But he doesn't seem to really care."
"What do you expect? Illya Kuryakin is as cold as they come. I don't understand what Napoleon..." then the voices faded as he got on the elevator. He didn't understand either. What did they expect from him? Tears and drama? A fainting spell? A coronary of his own? He shook his head, and dismissed it from his mind.
Illya sat by Napoleon's bed, watching him eat. They didn't speak. Napoleon accepted Illya's constant presence—it was an old tradition—but the banter, the gentle teasing that was the usual fare was missing. It had been missing since Napoleon was moved from the Cardiac ICU and into this room.
Napoleon seemed entirely fixed on his recovery. He was furious that his body, of which he had always taken such care, had betrayed him. "All those miles on the treadmill," he had fumed to Illya on one of the rare occasions he addressed him at all. "All those careful portions of low fat foods—all wasted."
"No," Illya had protested. "The doctor says it would have been much worse if you weren't in such good condition to begin with."
"How exactly could it be worse?"
"You could have died."
Napoleon had given him a dark look. He didn't actually say that death would have been preferable to the restricted life he now saw for himself, but Illya had read the thought in his eyes, and had had to look away from it.
Now he watched Napoleon in between giving attention to the contents of his briefcase. He was falling behind in his work despite the briefcase, and the telephone, and George's assistance. George had deadlines of his own, after all. Illya worked late into the night, trying to make up for it. After a moment Napoleon's voice brought his head up again.
"You should be home."
"No. I'm fine."
"I don't need you, Illya. I'd rather be alone."
Stung, Illya closed his notebook. "I don't mind... I mean, whenever I'm hurt you always... we always —"
"That was then. This is now. This is different. Why do you think hospitals have visiting hours, Illya? So patients aren't bothered with company twenty-four seven."
Illya rose stiffly. "Goodnight, Napoleon."
Illya paused at the door and looked back at Napoleon, who looked very alone lying there in the semi dark, in the impersonal hospital room. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said softly then, with an attempt at humor, "visiting hours start at nine a.m."
"I don't want you here at nine a.m. I want you at work." Napoleon's voice had no trace of humor, or warmth in it. "It's bad enough I'm out. Go back to work. You can stop off and see me before you leave if you really want to."
"I do want to. And I will. Sleep well."
"In this place?" Napoleon laughed shortly. "Hardly. But thank you for the thought."
"You're welcome." Illya closed the door behind him and made his way down the hall. He stopped in the men's room, and peered at his reflection in the mirror while he was washing his hands. How tired he looked! There were dark circles under his eyes, and lines of fatigue around his mouth. He was too pale, and drawn. Napoleon must have noticed. Was this why he had been sent home? It was painful, to be dismissed in that abrupt way, but he knew Napoleon too well to be seriously offended. 'I don't need you,' Napoleon had said but on those first visits, carefully portioned out in the CICU, he had clung to Illya's hand for as long as Illya was permitted to stay. Now that he was getting better, however, he turned away from that need, pushed Illya away, out of the room, out of his life. It was typical. Napoleon hated to be seen as vulnerable. He thought of it as weakness. Illya sighed. He would work, then. What else was there? He would work, and wait, and maybe Napoleon would relent, would send for him.
But the days wore on, and Napoleon didn't. Illya visited faithfully every evening, at the close of his work hours. Napoleon never seemed pleased to see him, and grumbled about lack of privacy the whole half hour Illya was there. But once, when Illya was running late, he caught Napoleon peering anxiously at the door when he came in. Napoleon covered it with a scowl, and the complaint that he might as well not have come at all as come so close to dinner, but Illya knew what he had seen, and took comfort from it.
It wounded him that Napoleon didn't want him there, but he tried to understand. Napoleon didn't want to feel dependent on anyone right now. Napoleon was deeply shaken by his physical collapse, and his ego was newly fragile. Illya thought about it for a long time, and came to the reluctant conclusion that for now he should back off and not press. When Napoleon was released, when Napoleon was home again, he would reconsider. He couldn't bear to be distanced from Napoleon, and furthermore it didn't seem to make Napoleon happy either.
They had danced around one another from that first meeting—both aware of the physical attraction between them, both aware that nothing could come of it while they were field partners. Illya thought Napoleon was relieved by this—he could enjoy Illya's company, tease him, indulge him, flirt with him a little—with no expectation or possibility of a follow through. Sex with another man, whatever they may have felt for one another, was outside Napoleon's comfort zone. Illya understood comfort zones, because sex tied with emotion was outside his.
Right now, in Section Two, they had it all. There were shared offices, hotel rooms, train compartments—beds, when necessary. There were endless hours together on stakeout, or in prison cells. They were thrown back on one another's resources so often, it seemed they became one operative, able somehow to function in two places at once. The missions consumed them, and in that flame they needed no other. In the dim and distant future, when the work changed for both of them, they could address the rest of it.
But the work changed, as was inevitable, and they never addressed any of it. Even after the fieldwork ended for them both, even after Napoleon's promotion, and Illya's, had put them on relatively equal footing, they had maintained their physical distance. Napoleon continued dating, but he never let more than a week go by without contacting Illya. It was Illya he confided in, Illya he came to when the pressures of the job seemed overwhelming. It was Illya who sat and listened when the dark nights of Napoleon's soul came and threatened to cover him completely.
Illya, though disappointed, accepted the status quo. He continued his own liaisons—men carefully chosen after consideration of a number of factors. He liked them attractive and physically fit, intelligent and good tempered. He demanded discretion. But his dates cared nothing for him, and he cared less for them. It was a necessary release, that was all. Napoleon was the center of his life. He loved Napoleon with a depth and passion that had surprised him, when he first became aware of it. He had not known himself capable of such strong feelings for another person. He had gloried in it then—he gloried in it now, despite the grief it was bringing him. It was better to love than not. He had seen too much of what lack of love did to the human spirit.
Napoleon sat on the edge of his balcony, which was bordered by a decorative but sturdy iron fence. He sat on the floor, legs under the bottom rail, feet dangling in space. Leaning his forehead on the bars, he stared out over the glittering panorama below and around him. He was tired, but felt no inclination to sleep. What did it matter? He had no job to go to, he was out on medical leave until further notice. And what right had he to be tired, when he had done nothing all day? Although Napoleon's doctor was very encouraging—he would go into raptures at the slightest provocation on the benefits of Napoleon's healthy lifestyle in recovering from cardiac arrest—Napoleon was well aware that his supervisors turned a jaundiced eye on men with his medical history. He did too. He knew he was fortunate—or should feel that way. He was home from the hospital, and cleared to a slow return to normal activities. He could even have sex if he wanted to. He couldn't imagine wanting to.
He was deeply, profoundly depressed, and had no idea how to pull himself out of it. Everything seemed to be too much effort. He rose in the morning, showered and dressed because that was his nature, to be prepared to meet the day. But there was nothing to prepare for. Even the normal chores of everyday life, that might have given him some structure, were lacking. He had been so very busy for so many years that they had long since been contracted out. His usually unseen employees came and went, cleaning the apartment and putting away groceries, and carrying stacks of laundry in and out. He watched them apathetically from the balcony, where he spent a great deal of time.
He had chosen his spot deliberately. He had never spent time there before, therefore it would have no painful associations. Unlike his home office, with its desk and computer, silent and dark. Unlike his bedroom, where the parade of women had passed through. He still slept there, of course, he forced himself to sleep there, just as he forced himself to the desk twice a day, to call headquarters and talk to his secretary, find out what was going on. He would not yield to any of this. But he spent a great deal of time on the balcony.
He wished he hadn't shut Illya out. He remembered Illya's strength those first days in the CICU, how every time he gripped Illya's hand some of that strength seemed to flow into him. Illya had always been able to lift the black cloud that settled on him from time to time, usually when periods between field assignments stretched out for too long. Illya said it was a reaction to inactivity, and talked of hormones, and cortical levels, and neural receptors. He made it all sound very reasonable, and logical, and even admirable. "It will pass as soon as someone starts shooting at us again, Napoleon," he would say comfortably, settling himself on the sofa, feet up on the divan. Napoleon had felt more relaxed, just looking at him.
Now his whole life was an enforced hiatus. And he had sent Illya away. He had sent Illya away because he needed him, and Napoleon Solo would need no one. What else did he have, besides his pride and his will? Nothing, he thought, and resolved that it would be enough.
But then it wasn't as easy as that. Illya wouldn't stay away. He had stopped in to see Napoleon every day since his return home. Napoleon greeted him curtly each time, and kept him standing in the doorway, but Illya never seemed offended. He always gave Napoleon a searching, probing look that went over every inch of him, noting and analyzing the status of his recovery. He always looked relieved, and pleased by what he saw, and always gave Napoleon a shy smile which Napoleon always pretended not to see. He accepted the inevitable gift—an obscure newspaper available only from Headquarters, which Illya knew Napoleon favored. Once, unexpectedly, there was a large black and white cookie, a reminder of their third assignment together and always guaranteed to raise a smile. Napoleon had almost laughed at sight of it. Then he remembered that his life was shattered, his youth was over and he had nothing whatsoever to laugh about.
He never invited Illya in, and if Illya was hurt by that he didn't let it show, only saying goodnight with that exquisite courtesy that could be hiding any number of things. Afterwards, as he closed and locked the door again Napoleon was always bereft, as if the best part of his day had come and gone once more, and he hadn't seized it as he should have. Why didn't he return Illya's smile, invite him in? He didn't know anymore. He wanted to. He wanted to badly. Visions of a shared life, a shared burden tantalized him. But Illya deserved better than an embittered old man whose best years were behind him. Napoleon had nothing left to offer, had only his pride and his stubborn resolve to need no one or, if he did, not to let it show. But he wished Illya were here. He should be here soon.
When the buzzer sounded Napoleon banged his leg painfully, pulling it out from beneath the bar so he could stand up and hurry to the door. He checked through the peephole, as always, and opened up.
Illya smiled at him, but there was no sharp once over. He seemed abstracted, and carried nothing. Napoleon concealed his surprise, and his disappointment, and just said hello.
A very faint smile tugged at his lips. Illya's hair was disarrayed, and his jacket was askew, as if he hadn't taken time to settle it on his shoulders before heading out. Napoleon reached out and straightened it for him, unable to help himself. Illya stared at him in surprise, then flushed. He cleared his throat.
"Um, Napoleon—I wondered if I could come in this time. Just—just for a few minutes. I need to talk to you."
Napoleon could almost feel the gates slam shut. Illya was pushing, and his automatic response was to push him back. "Illya—I am not up for this," he said with deliberate harshness. "I already see a damn counselor. UNCLE makes me go and I do, to discuss my reaction to being at home, my mental and emotional adjustment to my cardiac event. I'm sick to death of talking about it. No. Not tonight."
"I wasn't going to talk about your cardiac event," Illya said and there was an edge to his voice. "I wanted to talk to you about a personal issue of my own. You said I could always come to you, even after we stopped working together."
"Oh." Now it was he who flushed. "Of course I did—I'm sorry. Come in. I was—I was just sitting on the balcony. Want to join me?" He was ashamed of his incivility, and very uncomfortable with this new development, but how could he turn Illya away? He couldn't. He was ashamed of himself for wanting to.
Illya apparently accepted his unspoken apology and followed him to the balcony without another word. When Napoleon sat on a cushioned bench, Illya sat beside him.
Illya had gone over this and over this in his mind. He had thought of scores of approaches he could make, and always quailed before the idea of actually opening the matter of their personal relationship for discussion. What if Napoleon turned him away—sent him away, and for good? What if he were wrong, had always been wrong, and the elusive thing between them was his imagination and wishful thinking and that was all? What if—what if he took this chance, and lost Napoleon's friendship forever? And yet—wasn't he already losing it? He had agonized, and it had been a chance comment from a stranger in a coffee shop that had broken his paralysis.
"Hog tied and ass whupped," one man had said to another and both had laughed. Illya had not heard the preliminaries to this remark, and he didn't hear the finish. The phrase 'hog tied' caught at his mind so he examined it. Hog tied. Well, he knew how that felt. He knew full well how that felt.
"Mr. Solo is coming," Don Barton, the leader of this Thrush satrap had told him as he tightened the rope connecting Illya's bound ankles to his equally secured wrists. It was very uncomfortable and Illya squirmed a little on his stomach, trying to lessen the strain on his back. "But I doubt very much that he'll be in time, Mr. Kuryakin." He wrapped a length of rope around Illya's throat, yanked back. Illya choked and gagged, strangling, trying to keep his head high enough so he could breathe. He was aware of the noose being attached to the bundle that was his hands and feet, and then Barton stepped back. "No, I don't think he will be in time," Barton said, voice dripping with pseudo regret. "And the sight of you—the clear picture of your agonizing death while waiting for him—he can carry that with him as I will carry this failure." Without another word he turned and left, and within a few minutes Illya heard the whir of the helicopter rotors as Thrush's executives left the satrap—hopefully not too far ahead of UNCLE's rescue operation.
But it seemed an eternity that he was bound there, struggling for every bit of air. He struggled because he refused to surrender. If Napoleon were indeed to find his dead body, it wouldn't be because he gave up too soon. But his efforts weren't enough—not enough to live, and he knew it. He dipped in and out of roaring black cataracts, sometimes not understanding what was happening to him, sometimes, when a chance muscle spasm brought a deeper gasp, temporarily clearing his head, he understood too well. He was dying.
There was a clanging, a banging and commotion that hurt his head. He tried to turn away from it and coughed harshly, painfully, coughing away the last of his air, feeling the ropes tighten further. The noise seemed to fade then, abruptly, it stopped.
The pressure on his throat eased. Grateful for the reprieve without knowing what caused it, he gulped air like a man dying of thirst at a fresh spring. Something was holding his head up, hands, gentle hands, and he opened his eyes and looked directly into Napoleon's face.
Napoleon looked haggard, but he smiled with open relief when Illya's eyes focused on him. "Hang in there, partner," he murmured and Illya nodded, or thought he did—his neck hurt so badly he couldn't be sure. Napoleon was studying the arrangement of knots behind him, holding Illya's face in both hands as he did so. "I have to be careful," he said, as if to himself. "If I cut the wrong one..." he smiled directly into Illya's eyes. "Don't worry. I won't." He tried to get a finger between the rope and Illya's skin, but couldn't. He shifted forward and, still cradling Illya's chin in one palm, made a quick, decisive slice with the knife he carried.
Air. That was his only interest. Dimly, he could feel Napoleon unwinding the rope, letting his legs drop, the blood returning to his limbs. That made him cry out against the pain, which only hurt his swollen throat more. "I know," Napoleon said. "Hold on." He eased Illya down so he was lying on his side on the floor, and began rubbing his arms and legs. He did it skillfully, fingers digging deep while Illya crammed his shirt into his mouth to silence the groans he couldn't keep inside. After a while, though, the cramps ebbed, the pins and needles died away, and Napoleon helped him to his feet.
"Can you travel?" he asked and Illya nodded because of course he could travel, but the first step brought him down to his knees on the floor again. Napoleon got on his radio, began to call for a medic, listened briefly instead and then tucked it away. "We have to go," he said tersely and swung Illya up and over his shoulders into a fireman's carry. .
"I'm going to run like hell now," he said. "If it hurts you I'm sorry—just hang on, okay?"
"I'm all right now," Illya rasped, and coughed.
"Yes you are." Napoleon patted him. "I've got you. You're just fine."
Napoleon had run, then, and in a few minutes the building began shaking itself to pieces around them. They made it out and were soon choppered back to New York where Illya was kept overnight in the hospital for observation. Napoleon had had to leave immediately, to finish wiping up operations. They hadn't discussed that mission again. They rarely did. But Illya had never forgotten it. In that moment when Napoleon had held his face in those gentle hands, the look in his eyes had been one of love. Napoleon loved him. Illya had never doubted it from that day on.
But lately he had wondered. Napoleon was brusque, seeming to find Illya's very presence offensive. Illya didn't know what to do about that, so he just kept coming over, hoping that after a while things would get better. He was worried about Napoleon, who was, he knew, brooding in privacy over his heart, and his job, and his future. And he was worried that that future, which he had always seen as a shared one for them both, was vanishing like mist in the morning, and no reaching of his could bring it back.
He thought again of Napoleon's loving eyes, giving him strength, giving him life. He had had to wait for rescue; his bonds had held him prisoner. And now—now Napoleon was a prisoner, bound as surely by his own fear and anger and depression as any physical restraints could do. So Illya had come tonight to try to set Napoleon free. And if, in that freedom, he turned back to Illya with love, well, that would be... it would be wonderful.
Illya sighed as he sat beside Napoleon now, looking at the streets below, the buildings around them, the Park laid out before them like a glimpse into paradise. He sighed, and Napoleon turned his head to look at him.
"I'm listening," he said awkwardly. "I mean, I suppose I haven't—I mean, I know I haven't—been much of a friend to you lately." He paused here, as if waiting for Illya to refute that and, when he didn't, his voice grew more defensive. "I've had a few issues of my own."
"I know, Napoleon." Illya touched his arm briefly, then withdrew. "I'm not reproaching you. I'm here, aren't I?"
"Yes. And I'm glad."
"So what is this personal situation you have?"
"I am in love with one of my colleagues." He said it bluntly, watching Napoleon hard, wanting to see that first, unguarded reaction. It would determine everything that was to come.
The dismay on Napoleon's face was almost comical. His jaw literally dropped, he looked shocked, and hurt, and disappointed. Illya saw him try to conceal it, and courteously looked away from his failure. It was a long few moments before Napoleon found his voice.
"In love? You? With—with a colleague? Here, at headquarters? A—a man, I presume?"
"Another man—I mean, another agent?"
"I... does he know?"
"Well, that's something," Napoleon said and Illya quirked an eyebrow at him. Napoleon colored. "I mean, that's something to consider. Why aren't you having this conversation with him?"
"I have some reason to suppose that my revelation might not be welcome."
"What is he, a damn fool?" Napoleon exploded, then turned even redder. Illya laughed softly, and after a moment Napoleon gave a reluctant snort.
"Thank you, Napoleon. No, it is more that his sexual preference does not tend towards his own gender."
"To all appearances."
"But you think there might be more there than meets the eye?"
"I don't know. Sometimes I think—but maybe it is just wishful thinking and that is all that it is. But this feeling, along with recent events, which I won't go into, is making it difficult to go on working together as if nothing were different."
"I suppose that it would." Napoleon was frowning, looking out over the balcony. Illya watched him, filled with hope. Napoleon wasn't happy with his news, quite the contrary. There was a downward curve to his mouth now, and he looked suddenly older. Illya swallowed. He didn't want to hurt Napoleon, had only wanted to jolt him into listening, and to see how the land lay. Now he was ashamed of that caution. He would finish this now. He swallowed again, opened his mouth but Napoleon forestalled him.
"If you want my opinion, any man fortunate enough to win your love who then doesn't want it doesn't deserve it—or you. If he can't see that there's something wonderful right in front of him let him go. You deserve so much better—Illya." Napoleon reached out, laid a hand along his face, turning it towards him. Their eyes met, and Napoleon's were filled with sorrow. "You deserve the best," he said finally, and let his hand drop.
"So you think I should tell him?" Illya asked his question very softly. "Even though I may lose the friendship I already have?"
"Is that what you really think will happen?"
"I don't know."
"Either way my answer is yes. For what it's worth. I think you should tell him. Without telling him—the friendship is less than honest anyway."
"And if this finishes it?"
"Well —" Napoleon shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you about that. Life is damned painful sometimes." As if he heard the misery in his own voice he forced a smile. "But, as someone once said, we have each other. Even if that other friendship ends. You'll always have mine. For what that's worth."
"Thank you. Napoleon —" he took a deep breath.
"I'm always here for you," Napoleon went on, as if he hadn't heard. "I know I've done a poor job lately, but I'm hoping you'll forgive me."
"I do. Napoleon —" again he was interrupted.
"Thank you. I never told you how much it meant to me, that you were there all that time in the CICU. And those visits later—" this time it was he who was interrupted.
"I love you."
"What?" He looked at Illya, blinking. "What did you say?"
Now that the die was cast, Illya was very calm. The joy of speaking it overwhelmed, for now, the fear of Napoleon's response. "I love you. You said I should tell him. So I am. Napoleon Solo—I love you with my whole heart."
Napoleon's face was a study. Astonishment, relief, disbelief and a dawning joy crossed it in rapid succession and then he laughed out loud, reached out and took Illya by the shoulders. He shook him, not too hard. "You, you put me through that? And it was me all the time? And me saying —" he laughed again.
"Then it's all right?" The release of tension left him shaky, and Napoleon drew him closer.
"Yes, it's all right. It's... Illya, I died inside during that conversation waiting for you to spit out a name. I had no idea, and yet I've always hoped." He pulled Illya even harder against him. Illya, utterly content, laid his head on Napoleon's shoulder and sighed gustily.
"Oh, good. Good."
"Were you really worried?"
"Well, your sexual patterns..."
"Right. And yours."
"Never let them get close, never give anyone more than a night or two here and there, no commitments, no promises—and no affection. I've watched you, Illya. Despite the attraction between us, I had no intention of joining that particular club."
"Oh, you were talking about me? I thought you were confessing your own sins."
"Maybe I am. I could cast that aside in a heartbeat, if we were going to be together."
"I could too."
"Speaking of heartbeats, do you know this is the longest I've gone since it happened without listening to my own? For a few minutes there I actually forgot—" His face darkened. "It's a poor bargain for you, Illya. I'm an old, beaten up ex spy with a dicey heart. You —" he touched Illya's face again. "You deserve better," he said as he had before, and Illya shook his head.
"Nonsense" he said crisply. "You are at the height of your abilities. And maybe you deserve better too. It was a sordid life I led, before I joined UNCLE. KGB lure was the least of it. Are you sure —" Napoleon laid a finger across Illya's lips, silencing him.
"I am absolutely one hundred percent sure of what I want," he said, and his voice was rock steady now. "And what I want is you—us. Since I know you love me. I need your love, Illya. I do. Those few moments when I thought it had been given away to someone else broke my heart." He laughed. "So to speak. Damn if I didn't forget again."
Illya laughed too, and for a moment they laughed together. Uncertainty was gone, anxiety was gone, only joy remained. And with joy came desire. Illya felt it, throbbing through his veins, pulsing in his groin. He had always wondered, if when it came down to this Napoleon would back away. He had to know, and there was only one way to find out. He reached for Napoleon, touched him intimately, fondled his burgeoning erection, coaxing it to full arousal. He cupped Napoleon's testicles in his other palm, feeling the weight of them, drawn up tight against his hand.
Napoleon squirmed under his fingers. "This seems a risky business. I haven't—since it happened."
"But you're cleared for it."
"Yes. For a few weeks now."
"Then let's go." Illya tugged at his hand, brought him to his feet. He wanted Napoleon so much right now he felt he would die if he didn't... if they didn't. Napoleon made no further protest, and in the bedroom he stripped off his own clothes, then reached for Illya's. Illya held him off.
"No. You go lie down and relax. I'll do everything."
Napoleon obeyed, but as he watched Illya undress he drummed his fingers nervously on the mattress. "I'm—I'm ah, not exactly ready for this," he said as Illya got onto the bed, climbed on top of him, smiling down at him. He knew just what Napoleon was nervous about, and this glimpse into vulnerability touched him. It touched him deeply, and profoundly, and he was shaken by it. He knew that this would change them, bind them together in ways he couldn't even imagine now. Leaning forward, he kissed Napoleon, their lips clinging, the world shifting focus around them both. Then Illya sat up again.
"You're ready for this," he said and lifted up. Taking Napoleon's organ, which was hard despite his protests, in one hand he guided it to his own entrance, feeling Napoleon's hands grip his hips with renewed confidence. Then Napoleon hesitated, and Illya paused too. "Is something wrong?"
"It hasn't been so long," Napoleon said, twisting so he could reach his bedside table, "that I don't remember that something more is called for here." He took a small jar out of the top drawer and opened it. Illya waited while Napoleon coated his now straining organ with clear cream. He was encouraged, and when Napoleon dipped one finger into the jar he opened his legs wider, trembling now. Napoleon touched him very lightly, teasing, tickling a little, slipping the finger just inside. The cream was cool, and Napoleon's flesh was hot. Illya moved against it and when Napoleon removed the finger he whimpered softly, a wounded protest.
Napoleon took his hips between both hands again and eased him down, a slow, sweet, nerve racking descent, filling him, making him groan aloud with pleasure. He rode Napoleon slowly at first, wanting him to set the pace and soon enough Napoleon was pushing back, pushing up. He was still holding Illya's hips, and he ground them together, crying out, both of them crying out. Then Illya collapsed on top of Napoleon, and Napoleon put both hands in his hair, combing through it, pulling Illya's head around for another searing kiss. The kiss sent a fresh wave of pleasure through them both, and then it ebbed away and they were still.
Illya lay with his head on Napoleon's chest, listening to his heart. It pounded away, pounding and then slowing, slowing until it thudded in its normal rhythm, one beat following the rest, sure as waves on the shore. Napoleon's voice reached him as he hovered on the brink of sleep.
"I have a confession of my own to make. I too am in love with a man at work."
"You are, are you?" Illya shivered with anticipatory pleasure. "Tell me about him."
"He's beautiful, and brilliant, and the best friend I've ever had. I've trusted him with my life, and now I'm doing it again. Illya Kuryakin—I love you. I love you with everything that is in me. I plan to spend the rest of my life loving you." They kissed again, slow, and deep, and sweet and when sleep took them that too was slow, and deep, and their dreams were each of the other, and they were sweet.