Illya Kuryakin couldn't help but wonder if there was some unwritten law which stated that you had to use every pan in the kitchen when trying out a new recipe or if it was just him. He'd been at this sauce for a couple of hours now and dirty bowls, cutting boards, sauce pans, and pots littered the usually neat surface of his counters and sink.
Or perhaps I am just used to people cleaning up after me, he thought as he whisked the sauce. He'd been looking for something to mirror the plate of the melon and prosciutto appetizer. If he could get this to work, it would be ideal. However, he needed to be able to make it several times in succession and successfully before he'd bring into the kitchen and teach it to his staff. And so far, he wasn't having much luck.
Matt Tovay stuck his head in through the kitchen door. "Hey, Cara, che succede?"
Illya glanced over his shoulder at the clock and half waved with one hand. "You're early."
"Blame my mother. I was born premature and have been early ever since." Matt shook the snow from his coat and stamped his feet. "It is coming down like a 'cane matto' out there. I'm sure glad none of us has far to go for work tonight if we end up going anywhere at all. The roads are getting treacherous. Can I use your phone? I'm going to tell Rocky to walk."
"That's because you don't know how to drive in the snow. No one out here does. This is a stroll in the park in Moscow. There's fresh coffee over there." He waved his free hand towards the coffee maker.
Matt hung his leather coat on the coat rack and went over to the stove, first to hug Illya and then to reach for a spoon. He dipped it into the sauce and tasted it. "Hmm, berries, peach and...?"
"Ginger. It tastes okay, but I can't get it to reduce down properly. I've tried all the usual tricks and ended up burning it. Now I'm reduced to thickening agents."
"What have you tried so far?"
"Arrowroot and cornstarch."
"Hmm, that explains the mess. How many times have you made this this morning? Have you tried gelatin? That would be my first choice."
"Too many times." Illya indicated a measuring cup. "Would you be so kind as to add that please?"
"Ma certo. What is it?" Matt started to slowly add the fluid as Illya whisked.
"Gelatin in a white wine reduction." He hooked up one corner of his mouth as Matt grinned.
"You remember what Chef T always said?" Matt asked teasingly.
"Try the obvious first, yes, I remember. Stop there, please."
"How is that good looking man of yours?" Matt glanced around the kitchen as if surprised that Napoleon wasn't holding court.
"Sleeping upstairs." Illya was a bit disgruntled, as if annoyed that he wasn't.
"I asked how, not where, Cara."
Illya lowered the heat and switched hands as his shoulder started to burn from exertion. "We're more of the ships passing in the night right now and it seems like whenever I see him, he's either going in the opposite direction and too busy to stop or sleeping."
His tone made Matt frown. "Is he okay? He's not ill?"
"No he just has an option the rest of us gave up when we signed on. When he gets tired, he sleeps. We, on the other hand, just keep going until we drop."
"I remember once complaining about how tired I was and Chef just laughed. It was un segno cattivo—a very bad sign. But I am sensing there's something else you're not mentioning. Surely not problems between you two? Don't tell me the honeymoon is already over."
Illya kept his eyes on the pot as the sauce started to thicken. He brought the heat down even more and let the mixture barely simmer. "To be quite honest, Mattie, I have no idea." He picked up a spoon to taste the sauce only to have the utensil abruptly taken out of his hand and he was physically spun to face the redhead.
"Okay, now we talk."
"My sauce will be ruined...again," Illya protested half-heartedly.
"The sauce can be remade. Relationships are not as easy. What's happened?"
Illya shrugged. "That's the rub, Matt, I have no idea what's going on. About a week ago, Napoleon started acting a bit odd. First I wrote it off to the letdown after the holidays and then to our upcoming audit. Now I'm not so sure..."
Illya paused, his brow furrowing in thought. "No, nothing that springs to mind. He's been having nightmares lately, but that's nothing new for either of us. We both go through it on occasion. It usually works itself out or runs the course."
"Nightmares? About the old days you two shared?" Matt knew some of their history of UNCLE and guessed t other parts of it. He'd been told just enough to keep from asking the wrong questions at the wrong time. "He won't say. Just that they are nothing. To be honest, his birthday is coming up and I think that what he's really worried about it."
"Age is just a number."
"To you, it may be just a number, but you don't know Napoleon. It's more than that to him. His whole life has been governed by his age. He lied to get into the military early and then was forced to retire from the field just when he'd hit his stride. His age has always hung over his head like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. In case you hadn't noticed, Mr. Solo is just a bit vain about his appearance." He shrugged Matt's hands off and returned to his sauce.
"A man who looks that good shouldn't worry about anything. I've seen pictures of him when he was younger and age is merely refining his looks. Besides, I thought you could die of old age in the military...if you lived that long, I mean"
"I'm sorry, I meant from UNCLE. There's a mandatory retirement age from the field of forty, which makes sense. By that time, you've pretty much worn out just about every part of your body. Frankly, as much as I loved it, I couldn't wait to be pulled. But not Napoleon, he lived for the field. To put him behind a desk was...ludicrous and impossible to imagine." The gastric sauce was thick and smooth, just the way he wanted it. He turned the heat off and set the pan aside, his mind already on the next step.
"Why? You were there."
"No, I walked out just before his thirty-ninth birthday. Probably the worst year of his life and he had to face it alone. Talk about being an arrogant son of a bitch." Illya abandoned the stove, knowing that he had a sympathetic and trustworthy ear in his business partner. They'd cried on each other's shoulders, sometimes literally, more than once in their relationship. He sank down at the small kitchen table not bothering to see if Matt followed him. He knew the man would.
"Yes, but being an arrogant son of a bitch is also what makes you a good chef, the unshakable sense that whatever you do is the right thing, even when it seems wrong to everyone else." Matt took a seat across from him and propped his chin against his upraised hand.
"But not such a great partner, I suspect." Illya started to fumble with a stack of papers, just to have something to do. Then he stopped and rested his hands on the sheets. "It's just like ten years ago. Before he thought he was killing me with too much sex, but now he won't even touch me. I'm going to lose him again, Matt, I can feel it and this time I'm not even sure why." He sighed heavily and ran his hands through his hair, but it acted as a reminder of how Napoleon used to love his hair. His hands went back to the table top.
"If you can feel it, then stop it. You have that power, Cara." Matt reached out and after a moment Illya took his hand. "You're not the man you were. When was the last time you told him that you loved him?"
"Verbally, you mean?" Illya shrugged. "I'm not very good with things like that, Matt."
"Which is why I ask the question, Cara." He reached up to stroked Illya's face with his other hand.
"And maybe I'm just barking up the wrong tree entirely. Maybe it's not age that's a problem, maybe it's me."
"Napoleon has been acting odd ever since Velon came on board. When Napoleon had joined the staff, he fit in beautifully and has always participated fully, but he's never been one of us. He's always seemed to be one step removed, the proverbial redheaded step child and then we hire Velon."
"Ah, our dear beautiful Velon—that man truly is a God."
"Exactly, and that fact hasn't been lost on Napoleon."
"I don't believe it, not for a moment. Napoleon has never looked at another man. Women, he can't stop looking at, but never a man.
"He's looking now and Velon is looking right back."
"Then fire Velon, you know I'll support you, or do something about it. Are you so weak that you would let someone claim something that is yours? I've seen you draw blood over a recipe, but you'd let Napoleon go without a fight."
"If it's what he truly wants, yes...I don't know." Illya tilted his head back and looked up at the ceiling. "I thought things got easier once you got married."
"Not according to my parents. According to them, it's when all the fun started. They loved each other very much, but the fights... When they started, we hid."
"You could have told me this beforehand."
"Would it have changed anything?"
"No, it's just so hard, Matt."
"If it was easy, everyone would do it, but there are many people merely in like with one another and calling it love. Only a chosen few are truly in love."
"You should have been a politician. When did you get so smart?"
"I used to sleep with an arrogant Russian son of a bitch—guess it rubbed off on me." He squeezed the broad hand tightly. "You got a good thing, Chef—don't ruin it because you're too stubborn or stupid to change."
Napoleon arrived panting at the door, his breath coming in agonizing spurts. His heart felt like it was going to explode from his chest and his feet seemed to weigh a hundred pounds apiece. Still, he pushed on, driven by fear and painful reality.
There, in a pool of light, lay Illya, bloodied, broken and obviously very dead. He'd been too late to save him—again.
"If only you were a few years younger, Solo, you might have made it this time. Too bad you're so, so old...and stupid. That note was so obvious a child could have figured it out and yet you let your partner suffer because of it." The disembodied voice floated around his head, burrowing into his ears. "Still, he put up a helluva fight and never thought for a moment that you wouldn't rescue him in time. And he was a fabulous lay, so...vocal...so...nice...so...dead."
"NO!" Napoleon sat straight up in bed and blinked furiously, trying to see past the unshed tears in his eyes. From the bottom of the bed, both cats looked up at him like he was possessed, but neither seemed inclined to do anything about it other than flop back down. With a trembling hand, Napoleon reached out to the nearest one, a tabby named Beurre Noir for the black stripes on her brown coat. Moutard, a yellow tabby, rolled and stretched out, watching Napoleon through narrow slits of eyes just in case he had food to offer. Otherwise, he didn't care.
Napoleon felt the fur beneath his fingers and let his brain concentrate on that and the rumbling that started a heartbeat later, a soft purr of encouragement for him to continue. So he did for a moment before sinking back to the pillows to start at the ceiling.
Each nightmare was getting worse, the horror and brutality of what was being wreaked on his lover worse every time the dream crept unbidden into his sleep. Each time he arrived almost in time, but never soon enough to save Illya.
In reality, Napoleon knew Illya was fine, knew that he was downstairs in his kitchen, listening to the radio and possibly even humming along with the music. He'd be wearing those God-awful sweat pants he loved so much and a thin white tee shirt that clung in all the right places. And even though it was the dead of winter, Illya would be barefoot.
When he awoke from his dreams, Napoleon knew it was only his subconscious coming into play, feeding on his fears of aging. The fact that he seemed to find more gray hair every time he looked made it worse. Hardest of all was that Illya seemed to be aging in reverse. Even though he was less than a year behind Napoleon, he looked far younger and acted it too. Illya could still out-work anyone in the kitchen, something that was not lost on the staff.
Especially their new hire—Napoleon had felt his hackles rise the moment the man walked through the door. Tall, slender, young, and incredibly good looking with deep piercing eyes and a ready smile, it was impossible not to notice how perfectly he was put together or how well endowed he was. Worse, he had both the attitude and rsum that Rocky, Matt, and Illya wanted. He'd fit in easily with the kitchen staff and he'd become a quick favorite with the patrons, flirting with the women, jovial with the men. And Napoleon hated him for it.
Napoleon had even seen Illya's eyes slide down that body appreciatively , something the young man had neither resented or been offended by. In fact, he seemed ecstatic that the Chef of Taste liked what he saw.
Apparently as did he—Napoleon had caught Velon checking out the Russian on more than one occasion, his gaze stopping to first admire and then openly lust at the slender, hard-muscled body. Illya was either unaware or simply turned a blind eye to it the way he used to at UNCLE HQ. Women would practically throw themselves at the Russian, but to no avail. It had earned him the nickname of the Ice Prince, although Napoleon knew nothing could be farther from the truth. For the right person, Illya was warm, responsive, and loving.
Glancing at the bedside clock, Napoleon knew it was well past time for him to rise. He was beginning to wonder just where he stood in Illya's life. If he walked out, would Illya even miss him? The last few days, Napoleon wasn't so sure. Illya was so focused on the restaurant lately, pushing it even further, although at five stars, it was as far as it could go in that direction. In spite of his best efforts, Napoleon felt like he was being eclipsed by everyone and everything else in Illya's life and he was being left behind like a forgotten bit of trash. Three months ago, Illya would have been crawling all over him, demanding, insisting, needing him. Now, he was downstairs with his pots and pans and happy to be there. If only Illya would give some sign as to where Napoleon stood in the giant scheme of things.
Napoleon climbed out of bed with that disturbing thought following him like an itch he couldn't scratch. He needed a shower and some relief from the painful erection he was sporting. Napoleon ached for Illya, but whenever he tried, the image of Illya, dead and brutalized flashed into his mind and it was more effective than a bucket of ice water on his libido. The dream would always start with them making love and Napoleon leaving to retrieve something—he never could remember what he was going for—but Illya was always gone when he returned. There was a note and cryptic instructions that always took too long for him to decipher. And he was always too late.
He grabbed his robe and headed for the bathroom, praying he made it there before Illya made an appearance. He lucked out and shut and locked the door behind him. Solitude and privacy were the two things he craved at the moment.
He shaved hurriedly, trying to ignore the occasion gray whisker that joined its darker-hued cousins, brushed his teeth even faster and then climbed into the already running shower. Once safely behind that curtain, he dropped his hand to his penis, caressing it, knowing through years of practice exactly what and where he need to touch to bring himself off quickly. It was a sad substitute for his partner, but he made do. It was all he could do right now. He couldn't bear the thought of touching Illya and seeing those images again.
Illya glanced up at the ceiling as the clanging in the pipes told him Napoleon was up and in the shower. Matt, likewise, heard the noise and stood. "I think perhaps I should go now. You need to take care of some things, yes?"
"Yes, I guess I do."
"What are you planning for Napoleon's birthday?"
"Nothing, I thought he'd prefer it that way."
"Lei l'uomo pi insensibile sul pianeta o la sono appena di per s calloso?"
"I speak Italian, you know," Illya said dryly. "And no, I'm neither insensitive nor callous. I just assumed that would be what he wanted."
"What he wants and what he needs are two different things. I think perhaps some time in The City is what the doctor has ordered. I will make the arrangements; you will prepare."
Matt leaned forward and kissed Illya again. "Yes, you will. I will take care of Taste. To be honest, with the weather report with way it is, I don't think we will have much to worry about for the next few days. It will be cool in The City, not too cold, so pack accordingly. Take something nice and I will bring you the necessary information in an hour."
"Why do I put up with you, Azzuro?"
Matt grinned widely at his old nickname. "Because you couldn't bear the thought of living without me. " He kissed Illya one last time and then pointed. "Now, go to your man."
Illya watched Matt leave as he ducking back out into the snow as if he didn't have a care in the world. He'd readily exchange places with Matt at times like this. The Game of Love just seemed to come as second nature to the redhead. Making sure that everything on the stove was safe, Illya rinsed off his hands, drying them on his apron. He pulled it off and tossed it over the back of a chair as he walked from the room. He climbed the stairs quickly, two at a time, and ducked into their bedroom. It wouldn't him take long to pack—he'd become an expert at it very early in life and honed it even further as an agent. Still, he supposed it would be good to have Napoleon's input. While Illya didn't mind the casualness, Napoleon was a bit more exacting.
He walked over to the bathroom and reached for the doorknob. The fact that the door was both shut and locked spoke volumes to him. Then he heard something, a gasp, a half strangled cry and he froze at the familiar sound. They hadn't had sex for nearly a week now and Napoleon was jacking off in the shower? That was enough.
There wasn't a lock on the planet that offered him any sort of real challenge and the one on the bathroom door was more for show than anything else. It surrendered to him easily and he pushed his way in and strode to the shower, tearing back the shower curtain.
"What the hell are you doing?" Illya tried to keep the tremor out of his voice.
Napoleon nearly slipped at the sound of his voice, a look of guilt and surprise battling for first place on his face. He grabbed the shower head for support and found his balance. He looked at a loss for words until he finally mumbled,"I...um...didn't want to bother you. You were busy."
"I'm not even to validate that pathetic excuse with an answer, Napoleon." Illya shut the shower off and tossed Napoleon a bath sheet. "When have I ever refused you that you would need to resort to a hand job?"
"Well, maybe you should. Maybe it would be better."
"Better? Better than what? Jacking off in the shower?" Illya stopped and then shook his head. "What has gotten into that head of yours? I just can't fathom it."
Napoleon climbed from the tub and wrapped the towel around him. In spite of the humid air in the tiny room, he shivered, hearing the voice taunting him. If you weren't so old, Solo, you could have saved him. Illya watched Napoleon's eyes lose focus for a moment and then his lover dropped his gaze to the floor. He'd seen Napoleon wounded, drugged, shaking with cold, raging with temperature, angry, anxious, but never like this...never...shut down, not like this. "If I'd known the last time we had sex it would result in this, I would have..."
"You would have what?" Napoleon shouted, suddenly angry.
Illya reined in his own temper, determined not to have a shouting match. He'd been down this path once before with Napoleon and vowed it would happen again. He felt the gold band on his finger and counted to ten. He wasn't even really sure where Napoleon's anger was coming from, probably a defense mechanism more than anything else. He knew Napoleon occasionally had trouble with Matt's physicality, but Illya was careful to keep from returning any affectionate gestures that might be misinterpreted when his lover was around.
"I would have made it last longer." Napoleon had wrapped the towel around his shoulders as if it was a cape. Illya reached up and pushed it off, coming to stand before him, bodies not quite touching. "Tell me you don't want me." He reached out to place his hands on the still trim hips, his fingertips lightly stroking the skin. "Tell me to stop and I will, but look me in the eye when you do it, Napoleon."
Napoleon's body was already reacting, eager and ready, but in his mind's eye, all he could see was Illya's bloodied and broken body sprawled out before him, dead because he couldn't move faster enough, couldn't control himself. "No, I can't. I'm sorry."
"Then look at me and tell me why." Illya tilted the man's head up and stared into those eyes, eyes so dark that they didn't even seem to have an iris, just pupil.
"You just woke up," Illya protested. Or are you saying you're tired of me and our relationship?" He'd studied Napoleon as he'd watched the new hire waltz through the dining room. Was Napoleon thinking of changing partners? Illya's stomach lurched at the prospect. The last time things had gotten like this, Napoleon had turned to a woman, perhaps this time, he was going for someone closer to home.
Napoleon suddenly pushed him to arm's length. "Look at me, Illya."
Illya kept his eyes focused upon Napoleon's. "I'm looking."
"No, I mean really look. I'm...I'm not the man I used to be."
"No one is, Napoleon. The years haven't exactly been kind to me, you know."
"Bullshit, Illya, you get better with each passing year."
"Not if you know where to look. On the outside, maybe, but inside, my body tells a different story. Some morning I can hardly get out of bed, you know that, and there are nights when it's all I can do to walk from the restaurant to the house. The only reason I make it up the stairs is because that's where you are."
"But Velon...he's young."
"Is that was this is all about? Napoleon, yes, he's young, very young." Perhaps it was not that Napoleon was worried about Illya wanting someone new, but that he wanted something, someone younger, suppler and more accommodating. Illya raised a hand to brush Napoleon's hair back from his forehead, attempting to hide the confusion battling in his gut.
"I just can't right now, Illya. Please..." Napoleon shied away from his touch and the sound of pleading in his voice cut into Illya.
Illya released him fully, his eyes closed and his voice resigned. "All right, if that's what you want." He started to retreat from the bathroom and glanced back over his shoulder. "You need to pack. We are going on a little road trip to The City and I don't know what you want to take."
It took Napoleon a moment to realize the conversation had segued. "Illya, you're like talking to a gas molecule, you bounce all over the place and never settle," he protested following Illya out of the room.
"I was given just an hour to prepare for this and we have much to do. Now I will acquiesce to your request if you will to mine. We'll talk later."
The trip could have been far from pleasant—Napoleon had to admit that now, looking back at it, Illya certainly had enough ammo to have made the two-hour drive their own private little hell. Instead he'd remained quiet, almost serene, concentrating on driving. Both had driven in snow enough times to make the slippery roads a mere nuisance rather than a danger. Still, Napoleon hadn't hesitated to toss the car keys to Illya. When it came to driving in snow, no one was more adept than the Russian. Yet, the snow didn't last long. By the time they hit I-50, it had turned to sleet and then rain by Camino. Napoleon hadn't realized it could rain this hard in this part of the state. It pelted the car, at times becoming almost deafening.
"So you haven't told me where we're going." Napoleon could tolerate the quiet no more. He started to reach for the radio but Illya's look had halted his hand inches from the on/off knob. He adjusted the heater instead.
"Yes, I did, The City."
"Napoleon, around here there is only one—San Francisco."
"What about the restaurant?"
"In the weather they were having, Matt will probably close it down for tonight. It doesn't help business if people are literally dying to get in. We usually lose about a week or so of business this time of year due to the snow."
So no great sacrifice after all, sprang into Napoleon's mind. Again the restaurant always comes first; God forbid that I should... He sighed and looked out the window as the landscape slid by. The brown hills were just starting to show a blush of green. He'd been told that by the middle of February, they would be lush and filled with flowers—something that seemed odd to him when they were still battling Old Man Winter in New England.
He glanced back over at Illya and noticed, for the very first time, the start of a slight double chin, though it was probably more due to the sweater the Russian wore as opposed to anything else. Still, it was a bit of a surprise. He wished he could be as cavalier as his partner when it came to aging, but he just wasn't wired that way. At least if they were going somewhere public, he wouldn't have to worry about touching Illya or Illya touching him, and of having to fight back all those dream-realized horrors.
The windshield wipers were beating a hypnotic song along with rain pounding down on the car roof. He didn't mean to, but his eyes slowly shut and he retreated back first back into his own thoughts and then sleep.
Whistling, he bounced down the stairs, intent on retrieving something. He couldn't remember what at the moment, but knew he'd know it when he saw it. However, a quick glance around the small living room and kitchen didn't reveal a clue and Napoleon started back upstairs, intent on asking Illya's help. His legs were tired from all the searching, even though in reality, very little looking had happened.
He started down the hallway, but it seemed to keep growing, stretching out and getting longer every time he took a step. Finally, after what seemed to be a five mile hike, Napoleon reached their bedroom door.
"You are not going to believe what happened, Amante," Napoleon began, but then he stopped. He'd left the Russian, sated and happily dozing on their bed, just as he had time and time before, but the room was empty, empty of everything except a smear of blood and a hastily scratched note. 'Mimsy were the borogoves' it read. Napoleon crumbled it in his hand and headed for the door, which turned into the forest, dense and dark. Branches clawed at him, holding him back, catching his legs and feet to trip him again and again.
He finally made it clear of the forest only to be assailed by all-too familiar screams, pleads for mercy and for death. Sobbing, Napoleon pushed himself with his last ounce of strength to and through the door. Again, he was too late. His partner hung, arms twisted from their sockets; the slender frame mutilated and ripped to shreds.
"Tsk, tsk, Solo, better luck next time." The voice boomed around the room until it nearly deafened him. Napoleon pressed his hands to his ears and screamed.
Napoleon slammed back into the car seat, suddenly very conscious of his surroundings. They were stopped and Illya was staring at him from behind the steering wheel, his blue eyes shaded with concern. For a long moment, the only sounds in the car were the windshield wipers' rhythmic beating and the rain.
"Napoleon?" Illya reached out and Napoleon snatched the hand, holding it in a grip so hard he knew it had to be painful, but no indication escaped the Russian's face. "I think it's time to talk, my friend."
"Are we there?" Napoleon looked around, still disoriented from his nightmare, trying to determine their location, stalling for time.
"No, you started twitching so badly, I thought you might be seizing and pulled over." Glancing around to make sure they weren't attracting too much attention, Illya undid his seatbelt to slide closer to Napoleon, to study those troubled brown eyes. He stroked the sweat-streaked brow with gentle fingers and Napoleon closed his eyes at the contact. "Talk to me, Napoleon, please. Tell me what's wrong."
Illya had never been deprogrammed when he left UNCLE. He'd just disappeared and consequentially he'd never had to go through the mental brainwashing, the attempts to remove bits of important information. Time had done that. His knowledge of the organization was dated now and the facts and figures he knew as once vital information were now useless statistics. He'd no idea what Napoleon had gone through prior to leaving UNCLE and Napoleon didn't want him to, not that it would stop Illya. "Napoleon, is this UNCLE related? Do I need to call someone?"
"No, I'm fine. It was just a bad dream...a mission gone wrong. That's all, just a bad mission." It sounded like he was trying to convince himself as well as his partner.
Illya knew the sound of a lie and seemed torn between letting it go and pushing harder, unsure which would be more painful for his partner. "You know you can tell me anything, Napoleon. Nothing you could say would shock me."
"Really, it was just a bad dream. I was a little slow on a rescue, that's all." He released Illya's hand and stared straight ahead. Illya said nothing, sliding back to the driver's side. His fingers clenched and unclenched upon the steering wheel for a moment before putting the car back into drive and easing back into the traffic flow.
The rain had let up slightly by the time they actually got into the city. Napoleon had kept to his side of the car, watching the hills give way to concrete. Illya pulled a sheet of paper from his pants pocket and placed it upon the car seat between them, carefully avoiding any contact.
"Could you read Matt's instructions to me, please?" He settled into his working mode, his voice polite but shielded and carefully neutral.
The effect wasn't lost on Napoleon, but frankly he was glad for the respite. This was a version of his partner that he knew from the old days—emotionally shut down and carefully shuttered. He reached for the paper and frowned at it for a moment before realizing that Matt had written it half in English and half in his native Italian and all of it nearly undecipherable. He held it at arm's length, trying to decode Matt's cryptic scrawl.
"I think he says we need to find Henry Street. Or it might say that we have to feed a hairy steer. I'm not really sure; my Italian is rusty."
"I figured he'd head there," Illya muttered, keeping his eye on the worsening traffic. The closer they got to the city, the more snarled it was becoming.
Huh, must be a hotel, Napoleon thought. Out loud he asked, "Oh, does Matt's writing ever get any better?"
"Only when he's really drunk—go figure. And only because then he tends to stick to one language instead of bouncing back and forth. It used to drive Chef T insane because Matt would write things down half in Italian, half in English, neither of which were Chef's given language, which was Hungarian. Discussions used to be...flowery."
"I bet." Napoleon watched as the cityscape slid by. It had been over half a year since he'd been any place larger than Placerville and that wasn't' very damn big. It felt wonderful to be back among the hustle of traffic and of buildings taller than two stories. Already he was starting to feel a bit like his old self again. In a city this big, it was easy to pretend you were someone else, be someone else, and no one got to know you or your secrets. A city this large offered sanctuary and protection, so much different from Jackson where there was no place to hide.
He'd been to San Francisco many times during his tenure with UNCLE, but never for any length of time. It was usually as a layover, a day or two at the most. He'd never really had a chance to see the city or its sights. Hopefully, he could keep Illya so busy with those during the day, he'd be too tired for sex at night and then Napoleon wouldn't have to relieve his terror of having his lover snatched from him forever.
After another half an hour of twists, turns and near collisions, Illya pulled up in front of a white, blue-trimmed house and into a designated 'guest check-in' spot. "Unless I'm mistaken, the address we need to be at is Twenty Four Henry Guest House, correct?"
"How did you know?"
"Shot in the dark." Illya climbed out, wincing as a blast of icy air hit him. "Cool but not cold, my ass," he muttered as he dashed through the drizzle and up the front stairs. The door opened into a small entry hall and he looked around until he spotted a small room with a desk that was acting as a lobby. A woman sat behind it, obviously not in a hurry to move from her small space heater. Only a few times during the year did it get really and truly cold in The City and they looked to have picked just that moment.
"May I help you, sir?"
"Kuryakin, we have a reservation." Napoleon had joined him by now, standing apart from him as was their fashion when they were away from the restaurant. Illya noted it, but didn't comment as he rapidly filled out the registration card.
"And you'll be with us for three nights then?"
"So I've been told."
"Very good. We went ahead and gave you the grand suite as requested. You find it at the top of the stairs and to your right." She dug around in the desk drawer for a moment and then triumphantly pulled of a set of keys. "This is your room key and this is the key for the front door. Do you have a car?"
"We have a secure lot just around the corner." She held up another key. "This works the gate, which is locked after nine at night." She stood and indicated a room over her shoulder. "We serve breakfast starting at seven and there's coffee available from five a.m. on. If you would like to join us later, we have a wine tasting and sort of impromptu cocktail party in the parlor starting at around five p.m."
"Do you need help with your bags?"
"No. I think we can manage, thank you." Napoleon had been wandering around the immediate area, studying black and white photos of The City, trying not to draw attention to the fact that two men were checking in together.
"If you need any help with dinner reservations or directions, let me know. Otherwise our home is your home."
While Napoleon hauled the bags up to the room, Illya parked the car. The rain had started to pick up again and the temperature was dropping. He was glad to duck back into the hotel and head upstairs.
"Napoleon?" He tapped on the door and it opened to reveal a nicely appointed room. It wasn't the largest he'd ever stayed in, but it was large by City standards. "Will this do?"
"It only has one bed."
"We only need one bed or is there something we have to discuss?"
"No, it's just that...the woman at the check in, she might get the wrong idea."
Illya dropped his head and chuckled. "Napoleon, you really don't have any idea where you are, do you?"
"Yes, but I was referring to the Castro."
"Then I guess I don't understand."
"Come with me then." Illya offered him his hand and after a moment, Napoleon realized he had no choice but to take it. Illya led the way downstairs and as they approach the front door, Napoleon started to pull his hand free, but Illya kept a firm grip on it, entwining their fingers. "Trust me."
The woman at the desk glanced up, but barely paid them any attention as they headed back out onto the street. Despite the dismal weather, there was still a fair amount of foot and car traffic and Illya felt another hesitant tug of Napoleon's hand. He led him off the staircase and to one side. There, in full view, Illya released the hand and instead took his lover's face between his palms and kissed Napoleon on the mouth, sweetly and gently. Certainly not one of their fiery, no-holds barred kisses, but Napoleon was just as devastated by it. To be kissed in public, on a street, in front of everyone and have no one react was...was...
"This is the gay district, Napoleon," Illya explained. "Two men kissing here is not likely to draw any reaction. It is one of the few places we can be as we are, not as the world expects us to be. Now come, if I don't eat within the next few minutes, I am going to implode."
Eating is safe, Napoleon decided. When Illya ate, he was fully occupied, completely involved with the food. As always, he thought bitterly. Napoleon had the suspicion that he was always and forever to play second fiddle to food in the Russian's life.
Illya led the way to a small caf style restaurant not far from the hotel. It wasn't until they walked in that Napoleon's stomach reminded him that it was the middle of the afternoon and it hadn't had a decent meal in hours. A man wearing an unusually large amount of chain seated them close to the window and Napoleon concentrated on his menu. He knew he was far from stupid and he had picked up a few things hanging around the kitchen, but many of the words on the menu made no sense to him. "I think I need a translator," he murmured and Illya glanced up from his menu.
"For what?" Illya looked over the top of his reading glasses at his partner.
"I know what au Jus is, but what is jus lie?
"It's a thickened gravy, usually with flour or corn starch, as opposed to a reduction, which is more of a sauce and has a more intense flavor."
"No wonder they gave it a different name. And rechauffee?"
"Avoid that, it mean reheated and no food is really improved by re-warming it no matter what they say, except possibly stews." Illya flicked his eye down the menu until he saw the item Napoleon was looking at. "And that isn't a stew."
"Let's make it easy—pick something for me."
"All right, but only if you chose the wine," Illya countered.
"You have a deal, but you go first so I know what we're having." Napoleon studied the wine list eagerly, easily picking out a dozen wineries he had first-hand knowledge of. This was familiar territory to him. He'd been picking out wine for the restaurant for nearly his entire tenure there and was building up a nice wine cellar for both himself and the restaurant.
All too soon the meal was over, the afternoon had turned seriously inclement and they were back in the hotel room. Anxiety started to play a steady tattoo in Napoleon's stomach as the rain on the window sill. A nap and sex was a no- brainer most days, but he was as nervous as a bride on her wedding night.
As Illya stretched out on the bed with a book, Napoleon paced, even paused to consider turning the TV on. That would be a nail in my coffin. He winced at the thought. No, he was going to have to face this monster sooner or later, better it be on neutral territory and a hotel room was about as neutral as he was likely to get.
He eased down on his side of the bed, smiling as Illya glanced over at him. "Reading something good?" Illya turned the spine to show that it was one of the books Napoleon had recently finished and raved about. It was rare that Illya had time to read anything that wasn't cooking related, so Napoleon was secretly flattered that he'd brought it along. Napoleon let his head fall back on the pillows and he studied the Rococo pattern of the ceiling. The bed dipped as Illya rolled onto his side to face him, head propped up by one hand.
"This is the first time in a week we've both been in bed at the same time and conscious."
"Interesting?" Illya shook his head slowly and then surged forward, his mouth on Napoleon's. At first, it felt so good, so right and then just as he was about to lose himself completely, an image flashed through Napoleon's mind—of Illya battered and violated, tossed aside like garbage, and he abruptly pulled away. Illya's face was a mixture of confusion and hurt. "What's wrong?"
Napoleon sat up, putting distance between them, each inch feeling like a mile. "I...I can't...I'm sorry."
"That's it then, is it?" Illya's voice had dropped into the arctic range. Smoothly and without effort, he moved to the other side of the bed and got up. "Okay." He sighed and moved towards the door, scooping up his jacket.
"Where are you going?"
"Home. You keep the room. It's paid for for three nights. I'll rent a car and drive back. Have your lawyer contact me when you get back and we'll make the necessary arrangements."
"What?" Napoleon was on his feet before he'd even made the conscious decision to move. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Illya didn't even bother to turn. "It's what you want—right? Me—out of your life, once and for all?" He reached for the door knob.
"You're a coward!" Napoleon shouted at his back, regretting the words the moment they sprang from his mouth.
The tone sent a chill though him, just as it had many a THRUSH agent. The man who turned and faced him was a stranger, but Napoleon was frustrated and at his wits end. "I said you're a coward. You'd rather run than stay and fight." He felt something solid against his back and realized he'd come up against a wall.
"I have never run in my life."
The look on the Russian's face told Napoleon that perhaps he'd pushed Illya too far, but it was too late to back down. "Bullshit, you know that's not true. The minute thing gets tough in this relationship, you'd rather take off than face them. You're hightailing it out of town, back to Matt, back to your goddamn restaurant!"
Illya stalked towards him and Napoleon braced himself for a punch. The look in Illya's eyes shook him down to his toes, but he refused to let on. He stood his ground, unconsciously balancing himself, ready to meet the fight head-on if necessary.
"Do you know why I refuse to make love in our kitchen, Napoleon?" The voice was so tight that, for a moment, Napoleon would have preferred the blow. He watched Illya struggle to master his anger, to not throw that punch.
"Because I knew this would never last, that you'd get tired of me and I needed some place to hide that wouldn't remind me of you and of what we had every time I turned around."
"Take a good look, Kuryakin, I'm not the one going. Just like the last time, I'm still standing here. You're the one with your hand on the door knob."
"Leaving you nearly killed me."
"Then why did you l go?"
"I had to!" Illya shouted and caught himself. He took two deep breaths. "Because you being happy was more important to me than me being happy and because I thought it was what you wanted."
"It wasn't what I wanted...then or now. You are my life."
"Maybe once I was, but apparently not anymore or at least that's the message I'm getting now. You can't even bear to touch me."
"Illya, it's not you. It's me, this time it's only me," Napoleon said. "The dreams...you...I was too slow for a rescue. Don't you understand? I was too slow...and too late."
It took Illya a moment to connect the dots. "And I died because of it?
"Yes," Napoleon's voice was a whisper and he collapsed into the chair beside the dresser. "You die and I can't help you, I can't save you and every time I close my eyes, you die over and over again. You touch me and all I can see is you bleeding, ripped to shreds." Anger welled up and suddenly Napoleon was back on his feet. "Don't you understand? I couldn't help you. I stand there and listen to you scream and plead and call out to me and I can't stop it." He slammed his hand down on the dresser.
"I thought we had put this terror to bed long ago. I am not going to die, Napoleon." Illya's voice was firm but gentle as if comforting a frightened child.
"This is different. Before it was you always rushing in, being stupid, but not this time. I lost you and it was all my fault."
"Tell me." There was no wiggle room left in the command, no way to avoid the request. It was time.
"They always start the same, we're happy, we're having great incredible sex and then I have to leave to get something."
"I don't know," Napoleon yelled. "Just something and when I get back, you're gone, just a cryptic note left behind. By the time I find you, it's too late. I'm too slow, I'm not clever enough to figure out the meaning and there's this voice taunting me, laughing at me, at my pain, at my stupidity...at my age." He sank into a chair. "I'm just this pathetic washed up old ex-agent." He buried his hands in his face and waited for the ridicule to start. Instead he felt a strong hand on his shoulder, rubbing it gently.
"Yet I stand here before you to counter all those claims. The last things I would ever accuse Napoleon Solo of being is old and stupid. You are one of the most capable men I know." Illya stroked the back of his neck. "Those days are behind us. There's no need for last minute rescues anymore. We're both safe. We beat the odds—we lived."
"Then what? Or is your horror not really that I'm dead, but that I'm still alive?"
"Every time you look at me, all the scars, all the failed missions, all the near misses. And then there's Velon. Young, perfect, not some scar-riddled body past its prime. Tell me, Napoleon what do you see when you look at me?"
"I see you—just you. And I've seen you looking at Velon too. Wondering how he'd fare in bed?"
"But maybe he'd be willing to touch me!" Illya spun and headed back for the door. "When you make up your mind, Napoleon, let me know. I'm going home."
Illya froze, head down. There was a long pause and finally Illya murmured, "Do you think of me as special?"
"Of course I do—how can you ask that?" Napoleon was confused by the question.
"Then how can you be nothing if I love you? When will you learn that I don't give a damn about anything as long as you're here? Nothing is more important to me than you—nothing." Illya was adamant.
"There is something else." Napoleon voice was resigned, as if finally admitting the inevitable to himself.
"No, there isn't. If you know of something, name it." He was to Napoleon in three long strides.
Illya closed his eyes, knowing this conversation had been long in coming. When he spoke, it was slowly as if he was measuring each word for impact and interpretation. "Yes, Taste is important to me. I've worked hard to achieve something and many people depend on me for their livelihood. Once it was the most important thing in my life, but Napoleon, when I took those vows with you, they weren't just words to me. I never spoke them before nor will I ever speak them again and I did not take them lightly. I meant everything I said. I can't help but believe you felt the same."
"I did, I do..."
"But you're right, you don't belong there. You're a man out of step with the rest of my world. By your own admission, you aren't gay, yet you live with me. You flirt with women like crazy and yet I'm the one you fuck. You definitely are not one of the pot and pan crowd and you cut yourself more than anyone I've ever seen. Napoleon, you don't belong in a kitchen." He leaned down and kissed the dark head before resting his cheek against it. "But you do belong at my side just like always- nothing has ever felt so right to me."
He settled upon the arm of the chair and Napoleon began to rub his hand up and down Illya's thigh. "So what do we do?" He tilted his head up to look at his partner.
"I don't know." Illya leaned in closer to kiss him lightly. "Grow old together, I guess. I do know we make a helluva team and when we face something together, there's very little that can stop us."
"I want you so badly," Napoleon murmured, his voice almost too soft to hear. "But I'm just so afraid. I just keep seeing you...like that."
Illya sighed and then he smiled slightly. "Are you sure I'm dead?" he asked.
"Did you ever check? In your dream, I mean? Appearance can be deceiving, after all."
"I never thought to." Napoleon pulled Illya from the arm of the chair down onto his lap.
"Next time you should check. I'm not that easy to kill," Illya said, sliding his arms around Napoleon's neck. "I can be very resourceful."
This time Napoleon did smile, the first one in many days. "So I've been led to believe."
"Really"...a kiss..."really"...a kiss..."really resourceful." The last kiss Illya lingered over, smiling as he felt Napoleon responding and whispered, "If you don't take me in the next five minutes, I will scream."
Napoleon pulled away ever so slightly, resting his forehead against Illya's. "Even if I do, you'll scream."
"Only if you play your cards right..."
Even though the bed was but a few paces way, both men were completely naked by the time they reached it. Napoleon got there first, stretched out and welcomed Illya on top of him. The feeling of that body in his arms made him want to sing. Then came the image, the one he saw every time he closed his eyes now and he started to pull back.
Illya grabbed him, fingers digging into his arms, forcing Napoleon's eyes open. "Me, Napoleon, look at me! Focus on me." He eased off his grip, rubbing his hands over his lover's biceps apologetically. "Feel me, Napoleon. Keep your eyes open and watch me." He lowered his head to lick his way across the heaving chest to a nipple, to first suck gently and then nip it. Napoleon hissed at the sensation, but kept his eyes focused on the blond head, watching his hands card through the hair, feeling the softness of it as it fell from his fingers.
Illya worked his way back up to Napoleon's collarbone, finding a familiar spot, his spot, right next to the tattoo Napoleon wore because of him, and sucking on it until blood suffused the surface. And all the while, Napoleon's eyes stayed open, even as that talented mouth traveled down his body, finding his penis and engulfing it, bringing him close and then letting him fall back down until in desperation, Napoleon cried out.
"Tell me what you want, Napoleon." Illya's eyes were half closed, his face flushed. He'd eluded Napoleon's grasp and now the pressure of his own erection was about to make him explode. "Do you want me to finish you off now like this or..."
"Take me, now, please, I can't stand it."
Illya smiled and reach for the lube only to realize it wasn't there. He looked around frantically and shook his head.
"Talk about breaking the mood," Napoleon murmured, chuckling.
"Don't go anywhere," Illya ordered as he rolled off the bed.
"And where would I go like this?" Napoleon asked as his erection jerked, unhappy with its current state.
"Here in the Castro? Just about anywhere and they'd welcome you with open...arms." Illya was back a moment later, speed making his movements clumsy as he uncapped the tube and squeezed the lube onto his fingers.
Quickly he prepared both himself and Napoleon, not able to deny his own needs any longer. Illya drove into Napoleon with a desperation that spoke of his need and desire, but it was Napoleon who succumbed first, coming with a joyous cry. Illya followed but scant moments later groaning out Napoleon's name as he came into him.
Panting, he collapsed upon his partner, the sweat from their bodies making them slick. He pushed his way up to Napoleon's neck to remark previous territory, even as he was reaching for the washcloth he brought with the lube.
"That was nice."
"Just nice? I think I've been insulted." He rolled off Napoleon and released him. Napoleon was always so fastidious about cleaning up afterwards. He didn't understand it himself, but it made no difference. He lay there, smiling as Napoleon wiped him clean with a warm washcloth, feeling himself grow rock hard just from that simple touch.
"What, again?" Napoleon asked, tossing the cloth onto the night stand.
"I'm far from done, Napoleon."
"I'm an old man," Napoleon protested, but already his penis was beginning to stir back to life.
"Obviously not that old." Illya drew his tongue up to nuzzle Napoleon's ear. "You'll never be old to me." He sucked in a lobe and then whispered, "I know I don't say enough, but I do love you."
"I know," Napoleon said, bucking his hips and rolling so that he was on top. Illya smiled, a lazy I-'m-gonna-get-laid smile. He tilted his head back, making encouraging sounds as Napoleon bit and marked his throat before moving down to his chest, first to rub his face against the cherry blond hair there and then to capture a nipple. Illya hissed and arched his back, holding Napoleon's head still until he could bear it no longer, and then Illya tugged him back up for another kiss.
He ground his erection against Napoleon's and, for a moment, it seemed as if it might be over before it started. Napoleon pulled away hastily reaching for the lube. He coated two fingers and inserted them, watching Illya thrash beneath his touch. He knew that if he even breathed on Illya's penis, the man would explode, so instead he settled for licking and caressing his thighs, his stomach, any place but the one aching spot Illya so desperately needed touched.
When he felt Illya was about to shatter into a million pieces, he withdrew his fingers, lubed his own penis and lifted Illya's legs to his shoulders to position himself. Usually he went slow, making it easy for his partner to accommodate him, but not this time. This time Napoleon pushed in with a steady firm stroke, not stopping until his pubic bone rested against Illya.
The result was electrifying erotic for Napoleon. He stayed still until he felt Illya move against him and then Napoleon picked up the pace until he was slamming into his lover's body with all the strength he possessed. Illya cried, moaned and called out his name until he abruptly stiffened and caught his breath as he spasmed almost uncontrollably.
And when Napoleon climaxed, it was with the wild abandon and enthusiasm of a much younger man.
Napoleon eased Illya's legs down and helped him stretch out on the bed. He smoothed the tousled blond hair and grinned at his lover.
"I think you broke me," Illya murmured, his expression anything but unhappy. "That was incredible. I could die a happy man after that"
"Don't say that," Napoleon snapped, then offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry, still a little touchy."
"I have no intention of dying, Napoleon, at least not before dinner." Illya reached for his watch. "We have dinner reservations at the Fifth Floor in two hours and I very much intend to make that appointment."
"Is it that late?"
"Time flies and all that." Illya stood and took Napoleon's hand. "There's just time for a shower."
"I like really long showers..."
Napoleon leaned back happily in his chair. "That was a perfect meal. I'm not stuffed and I'm not drunk. I'm just very contented. This is almost better than sex."
Illya took his last swallow of wine and nodded. "I'll pretend I didn't hear that. I can't find fault with anything here tonight." He shifted uneasily in his seat. "Well, the chairs could be softer, but I suspect that's more me than anything else."
"Why? I'm not. I'd do it again in a second...well, maybe not a second." Illya held out his hand as the waiter approached with the bill. Napoleon had the good grace to smile his thanks without a protest. "So what would you like to do, Napoleon? The night is still young."
"To be honest?"
"I'd like to go dancing. I haven't done that in nearly a year, but I guess that's sort of out."
"Two guys—dancing? Come on, Illya."
"Napoleon, this is San Francisco. Anything is possible."
They were nearly back to their hotel when Illya stopped and pulled the car into a parking garage. He climbed out, waited for Napoleon to join him and led the way back a block and a half to a brightly lit building. The music coming through a partially ajar door sounded vaguely familiar and when they stepped inside, Napoleon couldn't help but smile as he recognized an ABBA song.
'We know the start, we know the end,
Master of the scene.
We've done it all before and now we're back for more.
You know what I mean.
Voulez vous, take it now or leave it.'
"We can run, but Rocky is always with us," Illya shouted over the music. He led the way to a small table and tossed his jacket on a chair, claiming it as theirs. He held out his hand and smiled. With a quick look around at the other same sex couples moving to the music, Napoleon took his hand. By the time they made it close to the dance floor, one song had segued into a second much slower one.
'I can still recall our last summer.
I still see it all.
Walks along the Seine, laughing in the rain,
our last summer, memories that remain.'
For just a moment, there was hesitation, more a question of where to place hands and then Illya slipped into his arms and they settled into a gentle tempo.
By the time the set was through, Napoleon felt like he'd run a race. He wasn't used to exactly this style of dancing, but he had to admit he was having a good time. He muscled his way to the bar to order drinks from a striking young man. The bartender grinned at him as he approached. "What'll you have?"
"Something from the Fountain of Youth?" Napoleon joked with a smile.
"Sorry, all out of miracle water."
"Then a scotch over and a vodka up." Napoleon glanced back over at Illya. He was having a conversation with two men, obviously a couple.
"I envy you," the bartender said as he poured the drinks.
"I don't understand." Napoleon turned his attention back to the man.
"I was watching the two of you out there. To have a man look at me the way he looks at you. He's got it bad, mister."
"Your partner—worse case of love sickness I've ever seen. You're a lucky man." He passed over the drinks. "That will be $6.50. A guy who looks like that could kill a man in bed."
"Oh, he tries," Napoleon said, grinning, as he paid.
"Well, if at any time, you need a change of pace or something a bit more sedate." The bartender slid a napkin towards him. "Call me." Any surprise Napoleon might have felt he repressed and slid the napkin into his pants pocket with a wink.
He got back to the table as the two men were leaving and his partner was softly chuckling.
"They wanted to know if we were into wife swapping, as it were." Illya accepted the drink happily and took a sip. "That's the third proposition I've gotten since we got here. For some reason, my friend, they like the way you look."
"And the bartender hit on me," Napoleon said.
Illya cocked an eyebrow. "Then perhaps I should hit the bartender. He needs someone to sully his looks a little."
"Jealous?" Napoleon knew Illya still regularly battled with trust issues. "You don't need to be." He reached out and ran a finger over Illya's cheek, smiling at the stubble there, relishing the feel of it against his fingertips. "Why have a boy when I have a man? Cheers."
"Nostrovia." Illya clinked the glass against his and downed his vodka.
"I do have something to talk to you about though."
"Oh, do I need another drink?" Illya started to stand, but Napoleon pulled him back down.
"Nothing quite so earth shattering. I was just thinking about our conversation earlier and you're right. I don't belong at Taste. I like everyone, but a decent bookkeeper could do what I'm doing and everything else pretty much takes care of itself."
"Well, I was thinking, that building beside the restaurant is up for sale and it's business zoned."
"The last thing I want to do is expand, Napoleon, you know that. I can barely handle what I have now."
"I agree, but I was thinking more along the lines of a wine shop and tasting room. Nothing too big, just carrying some of the wines that we feature in the dining room along with some of the more boutique-y ones. Maybe we could feature a wine bar, offer light apps or something along those lines."
"You do have excellent taste in wine and you know your stuff," Illya acknowledged. "But what would be your role?"
"Co-owner and wine buyer. I'd get someone to manage the place on a daily basis."
"Co-owner? I am hesitant to put my next thought into words, but with whom?"
Napoleon gave him a 'give-me-a-break look. "You know the people in the community and you have all the contacts. Taste has the reputation; it couldn't be a better match. And think of the tax breaks you could get being a corporation."
"I don't want to be a corporation, I just want to cook."
"Which is why it would make sense to let me, as business manager, oversee the operations of both."
"Are you trying an end run on me, Solo? I haven't had that much alcohol, you know."
"Just think about it, that's all I'm asking."
"There's only one thing I'm thinking about at the moment." Illya's eye took on a familiar glint and Napoleon smiled.
"Illya, after this afternoon?"
"Especially after this afternoon. Hair of the dog and all." Illya stood and Napoleon took his hand, entwining his fingers with Illya's, feeling strength and warmth in the grasp. "Let's go, I'll help you keep your nightmares at bay."
Napoleon didn't want to leave the dance club, not really, but it was getting late and the thought of Illya and bed, and more even more Illya in bed, appealed to him. They started to walk back toward the car, cutting across the now deserted streets towards the parking garage. They'd just turned the corner when the hair on the back of Napoleon's neck started to tingle. He glanced around casually, as if not having a care in the world. Something had raised his hackles, though.
"Yes, Napoleon?" He turned and then froze. "Company..." Three figures approached them, surrounding them, herding them back until a concrete retaining wall stopped them. The aggression in their stances made their objective quite clear, even before the closest figure spoke up.
"Okay, old man, let's have it." The hand in the jacket of his coat pocket shifted slightly, as if pointing a gun at them.
"Illya?" Napoleon tried again.
"He was talking to you, not me," Illya pointed out, flexing his hands. "I have it on the best of authority that I don't look a day over 30."
"Should we let them have it?"
"Why not?" Illya suddenly moved, taking down the man nearest him with a brutal kick to his stomach. Napoleon reached for his foe, slamming a powerhouse fist to his stomach and then another to his jaw. The man crumbled just as Napoleon saw the speaker move, pull a gun from his pocket and fire at Illya. The Russian staggered back and Napoleon growled, launching himself at the shooter.
With a cry born of fury, he slammed the man's hand into the wall, and felt the bone shatter from the impact. The shooter cried out, but Napoleon wasn't finished. He grabbed the man's face and it followed the arm, crashing against the concrete again and again until the man collapsed, leaving a blood smear behind him on the wall.
"No one hurts my partner, no one!" Napoleon ground out.
Satisfied that the shooter wasn't moving anytime soon, Napoleon scooped up the gun and slid it into the waistband of his dress slacks. Then Napoleon was at Illya's side. The Russian had collapsed, leaning back against the retaining wall and was looking both confused and woeful.
"The bastard shot me, Napoleon," he complained as he watched blood make the sleeve of his black dress shirt shimmer in the light.
"I know." Napoleon frantically sought for the source, pushing Illya's jacket off his shoulder.
"I'm tired of being shot," Illya muttered, stiffening as Napoleon touched his left arm. "Ow."
Napoleon tore open the shirt sleeve to try to get a better look at the source of the blood.
"That was silk," Illya protested, trying to push Napoleon away. "You gave that to me for Christmas, but it doesn't mean you can just go around ripping it to shreds...masher," he finished accusingly.
"Illya, you're going into shock. Will you just shut up?" Napoleon demanded, his examination hampered by the vapor lights. A stranger ran up to him and instinctively Napoleon went for the gun. THRUSH never travelled without backup.
The man stopped and his hands went up in the air. "I saw what happened. The cops and an ambulance are on the way. Can I help?"
Napoleon studied the face for a moment and smiled grimly. "Can you handle a gun?"
"One ninety-fourth ground recon and three tours of active duty."
"Make sure that scum doesn't move." Napoleon passed over the gun, butt first, and pulled off his belt. He reached into his pants pocket for his handkerchief.
Illya noticed the movement and shook his head wearily. "Sorry, not in the mood right now."
"I thought I told you to shut up," he chastised Illya as he folded the cloth into thirds and wrapped it around Illya's bicep and then followed it with his belt. "I've got to stop the bleeding, Illya."
"Just do it." Grimly Napoleon tightened the makeshift tourniquet even as Illya closed his eyes against the pain and a muscle in his jaw twitched.
"Tighter," he whispered. "It has to be tighter." Napoleon nodded and gave the belt a final cinch. Illya caught his breath and then his head lolled forward.
"About time," Napoleon muttered, checking to see that the blood had stopped seeping out. In the distance, he heard sirens and he shook his head. "You always know how to show a fella a good time, partner."
"Are you cops?"
"Ex." Napoleon left it at that.
"Thought so, I caught the tail end of that fight. I wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of your fist." He glanced in Napoleon's direction for a moment before returning his full attention back to the trio. "Is your friend okay?"
"He's been hit worse. Get him patched up and he'll be out hassling cable cars and annoying the sea gulls at Fisherman's Wharf tomorrow."
"He's lucky he's got someone capable like you to look out for him."
Napoleon suddenly realized that the stranger was right. He was capable and more than that, Napoleon wasn't about to let anyone take what he'd had. "Yes, yes, he is, but so am I."
Napoleon arrived at the door to the chamber, clutching at the frame to hold himself up. He panted and pushed himself forward, closer to the shape. Illya slumped in a boneless lump, blood oozing from a dozen spots, his eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling. Napoleon hesitated and then reached out, probing the neck with a stiff finger, trying to find a pulse. "Illya?" Then he pulled his hand back with a gasp as the eyes suddenly focused and blinked.
"Shh, he thinks I'm dead."
"So did I."
"Naw, I'm just playing raccoon..."
Napoleon almost let out a whoop of joy. "Possum, you mean, possum." He let tears prickle the corners of his eyes.
"You be your nasty night vermin and I'll be mine. Let's get out of here." As Napoleon helped him to his feet, he groaned. "Ow, Napoleon, you're hurting me."
Napoleon's eyes flew open and he stared into blue ones. He had gathered Illya into his arms and the man lay awkwardly against him, his bandaged arm trapped between them.
"Not anymore." He kissed the sweat-damp forehead and loosened his grip. "How are you feeling?"
"Okay, all things considered." Illya struggled free from the sheet. "No wonder I'm hot. Why am I dressed?" Illya started to pull the tee shirt off and hissed.
"Didn't want to wake you up last night," Napoleon said, helping him slide out of the clothing. "You were sleeping pretty soundly when we carried you upstairs."
"It's going to take a week for my ego to recover from this you realize." Relieved of the shirt, he settled back down against the pillows and, one handed, worked his shorts off, tossing them onto a pile of clothing at the foot of the bed. "That's better. Is it still raining out?"
"Uh-huh, a good day to stay in and wool gather, I think."
"I'd have thought you'd be hot to head back home and get started on your project."
"The important thing right now is for you to rest and I think you'll do more of that here than anywhere near that greasy spoon of yours."
"I beg your pardon?" Illya tried to sound put out, but yawned instead. "I'd forgotten how much getting shot takes out of you."
"You want some pain meds?" Napoleon offered him pills and a glass of water.
"On one condition."
"That you'll be here when I wake up." He took the pills and swallowed them.
Napoleon kissed Illya's forehead as he settled back down, resting his bandaged arm across Napoleon's chest. "Always." Thus assured, Illya closed his eyes. "Just try to keep me away."
Some people can't stand it, say time is a bandit,
But I take the opposite view.
When I need a lift, time is a gift, another day with you.
A twist or a waltz, it's all the same schmaltz,
with just a change in the scenery. You'll never be old hat,
that's that—you're timeless to me.
Hairspray—'Timeless to Me'