Illya overhears three coworkers talking about him and his relationship with Napoleon. The fact that the men believe that he and Napoleon are sleeping together, doesn't bother him. However, what does bother him is that they also believe that Napoleon will tire of Illya's nature and attitude before long and end their partnership. So he decides to change. Napoleon is perplexed and troubled by the 'new' Illya, in fact he wonders whether his partner has somehow been replaced by a double. He decides to talk to Mr. Waverly about his concerns, but before he can fully explain them, Mr. Waverly tells him something about Illya that takes matters into an entirely different direction.
A first time story.
Written: November 2004. Word count: 29,555.
This story originally appeared in Relative Secrecy 9, which was published by Marian Kelly in May 2005.
"I'll bet good money that they're sleeping together. You only have to look at them."
"Don't be ridiculous, you've seen Solo. A dog after a bitch on heat has nothing on him." The sound of men laughing filled the air.
"I agree," said a third voice. "Solo wouldn't go for anything that wasn't in a skirt. Even Mr. Waverly has on occasion commented on the number of women he has."
The first speaker pushed on. "That's got to be a cover. No one could have that many women and still stand up, or find time for anything else. No, Solo's been foolish there. If he only ran after half the number he did, I'd be more inclined to believe he did have them all."
"Okay. Okay. Let's say for the moment that you've got a point and that he does ‘bat for the other side.' Not that I necessarily believe it mind you, but with Kuryakin? Come on, I know that Solo loves blonds, but really, give the man some credit."
"He's not bad looking, if you like that sort of thing." The second part of the sentence had been said quickly and almost furtively.
"Credit where credit's due. He's more than ‘not bad looking.' I bet he has every gay bloke around chasing him, not to mention a few of the straight ones." The first man's voice had an almost wistful quality about it.
"You'd know about that would you? Like a go yourself?"
"Shut up. I'm just saying that he's got a lot going for him, at least as far as looks go."
"Like them frigid and virginal, do you?"
"Will you shut up!"
The third man spoke again; his voice was placating and balanced. "So what's the problem?"
The second man jumped in. "It's not his looks that are the problem, it's the rest of him. Going to bed with Kuryakin would be like screwing an encyclopedia." The sound of someone choking, followed by a lot of back pounding, resonated through the air.
"That's a bit unfair," chuckled the one who'd declared the Russian ‘more than not bad looking.'
"Not really. I reckon cuddling up to an iceberg would be preferable to cuddling up to the Ice Prince, and the iceberg would probably be more yielding."
"He's got to have something going for him if Solo is fucking him."
"Maybe that's what he's got going for him?"
"What?" The second man spoke again, his voice still sounding somewhat rough.
"He's willing to let Solo fuck him. Bet the reverse doesn't happen."
"Wait a minute, two minutes ago you didn't believe there was anything going on between them. Have you changed your mind?"
"Maybe. You're right there does seem to be more than just partnership and friendship between them."
"Yeah, well even if there is, I don't reckon he'll keep Solo's interest for long." The owner of the rough voice added, apparently also changing his mind.
"Why not?" Kuryakin's ‘admirer' asked.
"Well he's not exactly the life and soul of a party, is he? Unlike Solo. There's a time and place for discussions on quantum mechanics, and all the other weird and wonderful stuff Kuryakin seems to talk about. I mean have you ever had a conversation with him where you've understood more than one word in ten?"
"And that's when he talks at all."
"I'm sure that Solo has found a better use for that mouth of his." More coughing followed by laughter heralded the second man's latest contribution.
"Hey, you better be careful not to let Solo hear you. You know how protective he is of his partner," the only man not to really disparage the Russian said, his voice tinged with worry.
"Don't take on so, he's not around, no one is. Besides, you're the one who started it all."
"I'm just saying."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hear you. Anyway, I'm with Bill here, I can't see it continuing."
"What? This affair you two suddenly reckon they're having?"
"That and the partnership. Solo's going to wake up one day and realize just how boring and high and mighty Mr. Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin is. Then you'll see. He'll drop him."
"Right," Bill agreed sagely.
"You really don't like him, do you?" The first man sounded almost sorry.
"What's there to like? My brother's ex-wife had more personality than he does, and he divorced her for not having one!" The man laughed at his own wit.
"Here, that's going too far!"
"Oh, give over you two or we'll be late. Come on, we better get moving."
The three men pushed their coffee cups to one side and hurried out of the staff commissary.
In the seat behind them, hidden from view by a large potted plant, Illya Kuryakin forced himself to let go of the crumpled piece of paper that had, until five minutes earlier, been an almost finished report. He also released the breath he hadn't until this moment realized he had been holding.
It wasn't his fault they hadn't seen him. After all as Napoleon was constantly telling him, his hair was as good as a beacon that could be seen a mile away. And he had been there for longer than they had. He had been doing his reports, minding his own business, and allowing himself a few minutes' respite from the so-called computer expert who was attempting to repair U.N.C.L.E.'s computer system.
The man had gotten most unpleasant after Illya had made his third helpful suggestion, so Illya had taken his paperwork to the commissary before he said something that Mr. Waverly wouldn't have approved of. It irritated him to know that if Mr. Waverly had let him, he could already have the computer back up and running. But no, he was a field agent and scientist; apparently it wasn't his responsibility. He had his areas of expertise, as did others. Normally Illya accepted the rationale — he knew there were things he couldn't do, or didn't do particularly well. However, on this occasion he was, if not quite an expert, then at least considerably more so than the buffoon who was still trying to get past the first set of passwords. All the man had to do was to ask Illya, and Illya have told him what the passwords were. However the man hadn't asked, and had taken exception to Illya's attempts at assistance. So in his turn Illya left him to it, relatively confident in the knowledge that before long the man would have to admit defeat, and Illya could do what he had been wanting to do for the past three hours.
As a result of this he had been sitting in the commissary quietly minding his own business, when the three men had come in and started talking. Until he had heard his partner's name he hadn't paid any attention. Small talk wasn't something with which he tended to waste his time. However once he had heard his friend's name, his ‘Napoleon Solo sense' had clicked in and he had listened to everything.
Now he wished he hadn't.
It wasn't that he minded what they said about him. With one exception Illya Kuryakin had never cared what people thought about him. Strictly speaking there was another exemption: Alexander Waverly. However, in his case Illya was only concerned by what his boss thought of him as an U.N.C.L.E. agent, not a person — at least that was what he tried to convince himself. He wasn't even particularly troubled by the fact that the men had presumed that Napoleon and he were sleeping together. The fact that it was Illya's constant fantasy was something he was used to living with. After all, it wasn't the first time he had heard the rumor.
He had been working for U.N.C.L.E. for nine months and had already realized that Napoleon Solo was far more than a working partner and colleague. He was what Illya had never had but always yearned for — even when he hadn't known or wouldn't admit for what he was searching and waiting — a friend: his best and closet friend. They had a seamless working relationship and an easygoing friendship that, despite appearances to the opposite, flourished.
Home before 7:00 p.m. for once, Illya was relaxing in his apartment, a glass of vodka in one hand, a heavy technical journal on his knee, one of his prized jazz records playing softly in the background, with his feet curled up under him, when a rat-tat-tat came at the door. He recognized the caller immediately; only his partner knocked in such an imperious way.
Illya sighed quietly, the jauntiness of the knock telling him that Napoleon had not come to borrow a cup of sugar, or invite himself in for a drink. He didn't bother to move as Napoleon, who had a key to his partner's apartment just as Illya had one to Napoleon's, never bothered to wait for Illya to answer the door. The rap was his one concession to politeness. Illya occasionally wondered what Napoleon's reaction would be if he let himself in one evening, only to find his partner and a woman in bed. As the chances of that happening were as remote as Illya growing a third hand, he never allowed the thought to whiz around his mind for more than a fleeting second.
He, on the other hand, normally did wait for his partner to answer the door. It wasn't just his austere Russian upbringing, and the lack of privacy he had endured as a child growing up in an overcrowded orphanage that made Illya behave in that manner. It was also self-preservation. Seeing Napoleon flirt with women under his nose, lending Napoleon money to seduce his latest conquest, and hearing women talk about his friend were one thing. Actually seeing the man with whom he was in love in bed with one of his women was something else. Not that Napoleon actually did bring many girls back to his apartment. Instead he normally spent time — although interestingly enough, Illya mused, rarely the entire night — at their places. Illya wasn't altogether certain just how pleased Napoleon would be to know just how closely Illya monitored his partner's activities. It seemed to go beyond the ‘partners should know one another's whereabouts at all reasonable times,' so Illya never bothered to share this knowledge with the other man. But it was a rare day indeed when Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin didn't know exactly where Napoleon Solo was for virtually all of the twenty-four hours — at least as long as they were both in the same city.
"What are you doing, Illya?" Napoleon's musky, deep aftershave preceded him into the sitting room.
Illya glanced up through his once again over-long bangs. His partner had dropped several hints about the younger man's unfashionable hairstyle. However, Illya liked it the length it was, if for no other reason than it allowed him, when necessary, to hide behind it. "I do sometimes wonder about you, my friend. I should have thought that what I am doing is self-evident." He offered a gently teasing half-smile to the man who had been the first person to coax a truly honest smile from him.
Napoleon covered the distance from the door to the couch in three strides and stared down at Illya, his expression one of fond exasperation. It was the look, Illya suddenly realized, that Napoleon reserved solely for him. "Yes, but why aren't you ready?" Napoleon snagged the book from Illya's hands, grabbing a bookmark from the coffee table and popping it between the pages just as Illya was about to object.
"Ready?" Illya echoed, trying to snatch back the glass that Napoleon had also confiscated. "For what?"
"We're going out." Napoleon captured one of Illya's wrists and pulled him to his feet.
"We are?" Illya's heart skipped a beat. Napoleon did look particularly lovely that evening.
"Yes. To Penny's party. I told you."
Illya hid his sorrow. "You most certainly did not." He prepared to sit back down.
"I most certainly did." Napoleon pulled Illya back up again. Illya sighed and was just about to remind his partner of his eidetic memory, when the dark chocolate brown eyes flickered away and the handsome face flushed slightly. "Oh, hell. I didn't. I remember now. I was going to but Mr. Waverly had sent you on that courier's mission to Athens, and when you came back, I forgot. Sorry."
"That is all right, Napoleon. It does not matter. Now if you would just let go of my hand, please. Thank you. Do have a pleasant evening. I shall see you in the morning." Illya was about to sit back down again, his hand already reaching for his confiscated glass of vodka, when Napoleon's warm, slightly callused hand tugged him back. "Napoleon." He made his voice just a little irritated, and glared up through his eyelashes at the man who, with him in just his socks and Napoleon in his shoes, stood nearly five inches taller than him.
"Aren't you going to come with me?" Was it Illya's imagination or did Napoleon sound somewhat unhappy?
"No." Illya again tugged at his hand, and again decided against using force to extract himself.
"But you have to. What will people think?"
"What do you mean ‘what will people think?' Why should people think anything?"
"You're my partner," Napoleon answered, as if that explained everything.
"Yes," replied Illya, trying not to let himself enjoy the feeling of his hand and wrist being held in Napoleon's warm grip. "That I do know."
"Well, if you don't come with me, people will think that something is wrong between us."
Illya widened his eyes and stared hard at his partner. "Why?"
"Because we're normally together."
"You mean when you are not with your latest conquest?"
Napoleon had the grace to look away. "Anyway, I said you'd be there," he muttered, his eyes still studying the floor. "Please, Illya. Do come."
That was it, ‘the' tone. The one that Illya could never refuse. He sighed, resigned to his fate. "Very well." He began to look around for his shoes, only to find himself being tugged along in the direction of his bedroom. He ordered his mind and body to behave. "Napoleon, now what are you doing?"
"You have to change," his partner declared, coming to a stop in the sparsely furnished bedroom. He finally let go of Illya's hand; Illya immediately missed the warmth.
"Why?" Illya stood still. Seconds later, as the same warm hand and its mate began to tug at his turtleneck sweater, he stepped backward. "Napoleon!" The exclamation was sharper than he had intended, as he batted the questing hands away. "I can undress myself." He ordered his pulse to stop racing.
Napoleon gave him a swift, curious look, then shrugged and turned toward the closet. "Well do so then, or else…" He glanced back over his shoulder, his look leaving Illya in no doubt as to what ‘or else' meant.
Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Illya began to strip efficiently and swiftly. He was unbothered by his partner's presence, whose back was still turned anyway as Napoleon was concentrating on the, when compared to his own, meager contents of Illya's closet.
Once he was down to his boxer shorts, Illya spared a swift glance at his groin, reassured himself, turned on his heel, and began to head for the bathroom.
"Now where are you going?"
"To shave. I did not bother earlier, not knowing that I was going out again." He strode into the bathroom, which was still slightly foggy from the shower he had taken upon arriving home from work.
Deciding to make use of other facilities while he was there — with Napoleon in the mood he seemed to be in, he might not get another chance — Illya started the tap running to fill the sink and moved to the toilet.
Seconds later he sensed Napoleon behind him. "Haven't you got anything decent to wear?" Napoleon leaned past Illya to turn off the tap, using him to balance on. Illya wondered whether the American had even heard of privacy.
"What is wrong with what I have?" He glanced at his partner who stood watching him, a frown creasing his tanned face.
"Everything is black, or dark at least."
"Black is a useful color." Illya decided that although ‘color' was technically incorrect, it would be less trouble than the convoluted explanation his non-scientific partner would need to fully grasp the concept. Finally finishing his task, he flushed the toilet and moved to the sink. "Excuse me," he said politely, as he waited for Napoleon to move out of the way, and preferably out of the bathroom. The former his partner obliged him with. The latter he did not. "Besides it blends in."
"There's not much chance of you blending in anywhere, tovarishch." Napoleon's voice was light and tinged with amusement. Once again he watched Illya who was beginning to get exasperated, as much with himself for wanting Napoleon to stay, as with his partner for remaining.
"Meaning?" He smoothed his face with shaving foam and picking up his razor.
"Well, with that blond hair of yours sticking out like a homing beacon, those eyes that most women would die for and…" He trailed off and suddenly shuffled his feet.
Illya spared him a glance in the mirror. "And?" he enquired flatly.
"Your accent, your skin, your…" Again Napoleon trailed off. This time Illya didn't speak. After a moment or two Napoleon added, "There's not much chance of you being mistaken for a home-grown American."
"Well I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies. Now will you please move out of the way, Napoleon, or I may end up decorating that obviously expensive suit of yours."
Napoleon frowned and took a step backward, before turning on his heel and striding out of the small room that suddenly felt much larger, but cold and empty. "Don't go away!" he ordered.
Seconds later Illya heard the single alarm system being set and his front door close. He swiftly calculated his chances of getting dressed and fleeing his apartment before Napoleon returned from wherever he had gone, but decided he didn't have the energy.
He finished shaving and splashed on his own aftershave. It was lighter than his partner's and smelled of vanilla and the forest. Napoleon had bought it for him, when Illya had complained about his skin being sore, and Napoleon had discovered that the Russian's idea of after shaving care was cold water. Illya had never admitted it, but he liked the scent very much and the way it made his skin feel. Until he had met Napoleon Solo, he had never known anyone as obsessed with expensive clothes and toiletries, not even during his time at the Sorbonne or in Cambridge, where most of his fellow students had seemed decadent and wasteful.
Back in his bedroom he discovered that Napoleon had laid out his dark charcoal-gray suit. It was the one he kept for special occasions — which meant he hadn't actually worn it since his Cambridge graduation day. There was also one of his softer white shirts, another gift from his generous partner. Sighing he started to dress himself, automatically reaching for one of his black ties once he had tucked his shirt into his trousers.
"Stop right there!" Two warm hands closed around his and he shook himself. He hadn't even heard Napoleon return — an omission he hoped his partner hadn't noticed. He let his hands be taken away from his neck and glanced as the black tie fluttered onto his bed then, still nearly five inches shorter than his partner — he still hadn't found his shoes — he glanced up and drew back.
"Illya." Napoleon sounded irritated. "Stand still."
"What is that?" Illya enquired, still retreating without actually moving. It was hard to move when someone had his hands around your throat, and for a brief moment Illya had to clamp down on his automatic reaction. Throwing your partner onto the floor and holding a cocked gun at his head was not considered good behavior, even if said partner was being particularly annoying.
"This, my highly intelligent Russian friend, is a tie. You know what they are, don't you? You wear one every day when you aren't wearing those ubiquitous turtlenecks of yours." Napoleon's hands were busy sliding the aforementioned tie under Illya's collar and starting to tie it.
Illya wriggled. "But it's blue," he managed. He was wishing desperately that he'd had the foresight to put on his suit jacket, and praying that Napoleon was too absorbed in what he was doing to spare a glance for Illya's lower body. How could one person's hands brushing his skin cause such an intense reaction? Easy, when the person in question was the man about whom he dreamed almost every night.
"Yes," Napoleon replied, fiddling with the knot and ends, arranging them just so. "Ten out of ten for observation."
Illya touched the end. "And it's silk!" He was shocked by the excess.
Napoleon chuckled. "Yes. Nice isn't it? There. All done. Now on with your jacket." He reached behind Illya to snag it from the bed, turned his partner round and began to push Illya's arms into the sleeves.
Illya was struck suddenly by a memory he had not, until that moment, realized he still held. It was of his mother dressing her young three-year-old son for his first visit to the Russian Orthodox Church. It had been their last journey as a family, as during it she and his father had been shot to death in front of him. Absurdly he felt his throat constrict and his eyes burn. He dug his nails into his palms and forced himself to breathe.
A hand on his shoulder, concerned, heavy and warm, pulled him back to the present. "Illya?" His partner's voice matched his hand. "What is it?"
Illya moved away, knowing that if he stayed he would almost certainly end up disgracing himself by throwing himself into Napoleon's arms and sobbing.
"Nothing. I am fine," he managed, knowing that even as he spoke, his suddenly heavier-than-usual accent would tell Napoleon more than the actual words. Fighting with everything he had, everything that had allowed him to survive the orphanage, the navy, the abuse, the poverty, the constant fear and hunger, and all the beatings and worse he had suffered since becoming an U.N.C.L.E. agent, he pulled himself together and turned to face his partner. However, he couldn't meet those knowing brown eyes. Instead he concentrated on the task of finding his shoes.
"Are you sure it is my color?" he asked, dragging the focus back to the borrowed tie. It was a stupid question; since when did he trouble himself about such matters? As long as what he wore was clean, and reasonably neat and tidy, it sufficed.
Napoleon was staring at him. Illya could sense the gaze boring into his skin, even though he wasn't looking at him. He felt the unasked question, heard his friend's brain whirring as it considered pressing the point, and knew the moment Napoleon decided to let matters rest.
"Sure. It matches your eyes," came the languid response. Now Illya did look up, the jerk on his neck muscles quite painful, but Napoleon had turned away and was digging under the chest of drawers. "Here." He held out the black leather shoes for which Illya had been searching. Seconds later, Illya felt his overcoat draped round his shoulders. "You'll need this. It's cold and we're walking. Now are you ready?"
No, thought Illya. "Yes," he said, following Napoleon through the apartment, switching off lights as he went. He paused near the door, preparing to turn on the double alarm, the one all U.N.C.L.E. agents used when not at home. "Do I need to take anything?" He might not go to many parties, but he did know the customs.
Napoleon swept up a brown wrapped package. "I've dealt with that." He waved the bottle-shaped parcel in Illya's direction and strode out of the door, leaving Illya to wonder just what people would think of them turning up like a ‘couple,' especially with him wearing one of Napoleon's ties. He had no doubt at all that anyone he knew at the party would immediately know that Illya Kuryakin did not own something as bright or expensive as the thing he wore.
"Illya," Napoleon's possessive, half-exasperated tone sounded from down the hall and he hurried to set the alarm before dropping the keys into his pocket and trotting off after his friend.
Illya stood in a corner, a drink in his hand, watching people mill around the room and wondering just how soon he could politely make his escape. As expected Napoleon had been whisked from his side almost upon their arrival, and he hadn't spoken to him since. He knew, at almost every second, exactly where Napoleon was, though, and he wasn't unpleased to see that his friend had tried, even though he had failed, on more than one occasion to make his way to Illya's side. The only other thing that made the party even bearable was the fact that the hostess clearly had excellent taste in vodka, and expensive taste too. Then Illya realized that even in this he was being a fool. The hostess had not provided the drink, Napoleon had. It had been his way of attempting to ensure that Illya at least had a not entirely unpleasant evening.
However, even the smooth, highly-proofed liquid could not make up for the fact that Illya had to watch the women surround his partner like bees around a honey pot, and watch his flirtatious friend laugh and joke with all of them. He vaguely wondered how many of them Napoleon would end up dating after the party, and how many meals out he would end up paying for. Actually, considering how much of his money he calmly handed over to his partner, it was a good thing that he didn't have too many expensive tastes. It wasn't that Napoleon was ungenerous — he wasn't, Illya had never known a more generous man — it was just that he often seemed to have no money when he took a girl out.
Illya glanced down at his watch. They had been there for over two hours; surely he could slip away now. Surely Napoleon wouldn't notice. But then his partner's eyes, as if drawn by Illya's thoughts, flicked across the hordes of women and met his, held them and pleaded with him to stay. He sighed and topped his glass up from the bottle Napoleon had thoughtfully placed on the table by which he stood.
"Maybe we should compare notes, Mr. Kuryakin," a slightly slurred, wistful voice sounded near to his ear.
"I beg your pardon?" He turned and saw Janice Thompson, one of U.N.C.L.E.'s highly efficient secretaries. His mind was attempting to process her words. What kind of notes could they exchange? She was efficient yes, not unintelligent even, but he was certain she knew nothing of quantum mechanics, or anything else that might interest Illya.
"On Mr. Solo." She blinked as she stared up at him. It made him feel quite reassured; there was someone who actually had to look up at him. But still he didn't understand.
He shook his head and frowned slightly. She smiled, a full-mouthed white-toothed smile. "On what it's like to be seduced by the great Napoleon Solo and then dumped. At least you still get to work with him almost every day and go out with him occasionally. That must almost make it worth it."
Illya shook his head again, more confused than before, and tried to process what she had said. Suddenly it hit him. He opened his mouth, closed it again, took a large gulp of his drink, which went down the wrong way, momentarily choking him, before managing to say a few, incoherent words. "You mean… You think… Napoleon and I…"
Janice flashed him another smile and patted his hand, before reaching up to kiss him lightly on the cheek. "Don't worry about it, Mr. Kuryakin, your secret is safe with me. Well," she paused and giggled, before patting his hand again. "Me and half of U.N.C.L.E." She giggled again and tottered off on her spiked heels. Illya just stared after her, his mouth open.
"Shut your mouth, Illya," a warm voice sounded in his ear. "Or someone just might pop something in it."
Illya jumped, causing the soft lips to brush his ear, yelped and splashed his drink down his tie, or rather down Napoleon's tie. "Ja sozhaleyu," he spluttered, forgetting that the American didn't speak Russian. He dragged out his handkerchief and started to dab at the damp silk, just as a tanned hand reached for it. Their hands touched and he yelped again and took a step backward, colliding with a floor lamp and nearly knocking over a table of bottles. Only Napoleon's quick reaction prevented the accident. A few idle glances were turned their way, but most turned away again when they saw that it was only the partners.
"Ja konechno zamenyu eto dlja vas," he continued. Napoleon just chuckled and held up a hand. At least he had stopped dabbing at Illya's chest. He did however still have a grip on Illya's arm.
"English, my Russian friend, English," Napoleon said through his laughter.
Illya, closer now to pure panic than he had ever been in his life, heard Napoleon's words, but for the life of him he couldn't understand them. Finally, calling on everything that made him who he was, he translated the words into Russian, and then his reply from Russian into English. "I said I am sorry, and that I shall of course replace it for you." He saw Napoleon frown.
"Are you all right, Illya?" Napoleon leaned closer again. Illya forced himself not to back away.
"I am fine," he managed, and then suddenly seeing a way out, corrected himself. "Actually, I am not fine. I have a headache, a bad headache. I think I shall go home. Now," he added, extracting himself from his partner's grip with little elegance or care for what Napoleon might think.
A hand caught his shoulder and he forced himself not to yank away. "Illya, wait. I'll come with you."
Illya spun, almost lost his balance and stared at Napoleon. "Nyet!" The word echoed around the momentarily quiet room, and once again a few curious glances were turned on the partners. Again, they flashed away as the music and conversation regained dominance. "I mean, no thank you. There is no need, Napasha." His affectionate name for his partner slipped out and he bit his tongue. He never should have started to use it; it was far too intimate. "I shall be fine. I just need to go home and sleep. You stay. Enjoy yourself. I will be fine," he repeated, the words tumbling over one another. He wiped his hands on his trousers and hoped that Napoleon hadn't noticed.
Nonetheless it appeared that Napoleon was not going to let him go. "No, just let me—"
But before he could say anything else, two girls appeared, grabbed him and dragged him away, calling back over their shoulders, "Naughty Mr. Kuryakin, you really can't monopolize your partner all evening."
As Napoleon was swallowed up in the crowd, Illya found enough strength to rescue his overcoat and spare a second to thank his hostess, whom he felt sure didn't even know who he was, before escaping into the cool night air.
Twenty-five minutes later found him propped up in bed with a very large glass of vodka and the bottle standing on the nightstand. Then he did what he had not done for many, many years. He drank himself into a dreamless stupor.
The next day and for eight days after that, he set about distancing himself from his closest friend. It was only on the tenth day when Napoleon walked into the office they shared, slammed the door and leaned against it, thus preventing Illya from leaving as had been his wont for the past few days, and asked softly and painfully, "Illya, what is the matter? What have I done?" that Illya realized that all his actions were doing was hurting both him and the man for whom he cared. It wasn't for his own sake that he minded, but he had vowed that he would not deliberately hurt his friend. Thus he forced himself to file the incident into the secret compartment of his mind and let his relationship with Napoleon regain its intimacy.
He still had the spoiled tie, safely tucked away wrapped in tissue paper, under his bed along with his beloved jazz collection. He had, of course, against Napoleon's protests that he didn't want the tie replaced and anyway it suited Illya far better than it suited him, bought his friend a new tie. However, he held on to the original one, simply because it had once belonged to Napoleon. Occasionally he chided his sentimentality and vowed to toss it into the trash, but he never had and he never would. Even less occasionally he wondered just what Napoleon would think if the day came when Illya was killed and his friend was left to sort out his belongings. Oh, well, it wouldn't matter then.
Illya had overheard several covert comments and caught various knowing looks since that day, but he had ignored them all. He had no idea whether Napoleon had heard the same things that he had, and thought it prudent not to ask. Their friendship and partnership had grown closer, tighter and, apart from all the women Napoleon dated and bedded, even more exclusive, and Illya clung to the times spent with Napoleon like a drowning man might cling to a life raft. He also filed all of the times they had shared away in his computer-like memory, for the day when Napoleon was no longer around.
So, although he cared little, if anything, for what people thought of him, or of his supposed affair with the senior agent, he did care very much about what people thought of Napoleon, and linked with that, just as importantly, what Napoleon thought about him. He knew that he was respected by just about everyone for whom he had ever worked. He knew that Mr. Waverly regarded him as one of his top agents, but also knew that although the respect of his colleagues was unshakeable few actually liked him. He wasn't exactly an easy man to like, mainly because he was an almost impossible man to get to know. His American partner was the only person who had truly tried, and apart from a few hints and light-hearted nags, the only person who accepted Illya Nickovetch without trying to change him.
However, now he wondered whether a change was not in fact overdue. Used to being unable to have Napoleon in the way he truly wanted him, he was not, however, prepared to lose him completely. And if only a part of what two of the three men had said was true, then it did indeed seem that the outgoing and gregarious man was, one day soon, going to tire of his introverted, reserved partner.
Glancing up, his ‘Napoleon sensor' activated, he caught sight of his friend strolling past the commissary. There was no time like the present.
Pausing only long enough to gather up his papers, he pushed the crumpled report into his suit jacket pocket and hurried out of the room, swerving to avoid a group of giggling women. "Napoleon," he called, as his friend got to the far corner.
Napoleon's ears registered his partner's voice, but the unaccustomed loudness of it had him momentarily reaching under his own suit jacket, until his senses told him that it wasn't a warning cry. The highly unusual level of Illya's voice caused several people to stop and swivel round, surprise evident on their faces. They recovered quickly and were all moving again, casting overt and covert glances, as Illya hurried down the corridor to where Napoleon waited, still more than a little puzzled by the untypical behavior.
The puzzlement turned to something darker and deeper as Illya reached him and smiled sunnily. Or at least it would have been sunnily had it been anyone else. On Illya, a man unused to more than a half smile, it looked odd.
"Illya?" he questioned, resisting the urge to check the other man's forehead for a temperature." His ‘Illya button' had just been activated, and he was certain that something was not only not right, it was badly wrong. He knew from the way Illya looked at him that he was giving nothing away, and thanked his lucky stars that he had taught himself to occasionally be almost as inscrutable as the Russian.
"I was wondering if you were doing anything tonight?" Illya's voice had returned to its normal level, but that was about the only thing that Napoleon would describe as being ‘normal' about his partner. Of course, many people would say that normal was not a word that could be applied to Illya Kuryakin, but then most people were fools.
Nonetheless, in spite of the tingling in the nape of his neck, Napoleon was just about to tell Illya that he was. Suzie had finally, after months of dedicated pursuit, agreed to go out to dinner with Napoleon, and had made it blatantly clear that the restaurant Napoleon had booked was merely the appetizer. Then he looked into the sapphire blue eyes and something made him hold his tongue. They were overly bright, at least to someone who knew Illya well, and hid something.
"No," he said, hoping that Suzie wouldn't appear, and also hoping that his partner's apparent ability to read his mind and know when he was lying was turned off. The latter hope, if the half-smile, the normal Illya smile, was anything to go by, had held. "Why?"
"Because I thought that you would like to come with me to Jades.'"
Napoleon felt his mouth fall open and hastened to close it. He moved slightly closer to the shorter man. "Er, Illya," he said, not all together certain of how to phrase his next words. A blond eyebrow disappeared under the long bangs. "You do know what kind of place Jades is, don't you?" he asked carefully.
Illya's affectionate look mingled with bemusement and exasperation. "Of course I do, my friend. I have, after all, lived in your city for four years now. I shall see you later, yes? Now I must go and persuade Mr. Waverly that if he ever wants to get our computer system working to let me sort it out rather than that fool who is costing us hundreds of dollars each hour. Until later, tovarishch." Napoleon simply stood and watched his younger partner trot off down the corridor. Even the blatant ‘I know better than someone else' was out of place. Yes, Illya would think that and say it, but normally only to Napoleon, relying on his more subtle partner to explain things to their boss.
Something was wrong. Desperately wrong. Napoleon needed to see Mr. Waverly, but he needed to wait until Illya had left. He popped his head into Mr. Waverly's secretary's office. "Lisa, give me a call will you, please, when Mr. Kuryakin has left Mr. Waverly's office?" The astonished look she gave him didn't surprise him. After all if Mr. Solo knew that Mr. Kuryakin was in with Mr. Waverly, why didn't said Mr. Solo simply go in and join his partner? That was how it usually worked out. He flashed her his patented Napoleon Solo smile, knew it had failed as her look became more incredulous, thought about saying something else, decided not to, and hurried off.
The call came more quickly than Napoleon had expected and he took off toward Mr. Waverly's office. Knocking quickly, he waited for the ‘come in.'
"Ah, Mr. Solo, nice to see you. Tell me, has your Russian friend been taking charm lessons?" As Napoleon tried to compute what his boss had said, part of his mind was wondering why Alexander Waverly insisted on referring to Illya so often as ‘your Russian friend.' Was it simply to do with the Cold War and Mr. Waverly's age? Or was there something subtler?
"Not that I know of, sir," he said, casting a eye over his boss and wondering if the older man was feeling all right. "Why?"
Alexander Waverly chuckled. "He was in here a few minutes ago persuading me that if we ever wanted to get the computer system up and running this week we should let him take charge of the repairs."
"That sounds like Illya," Napoleon managed, aware that only half of his mind was focused on what his boss was saying.
"Yes. It is also the conclusion I had come to approximately forty minutes ago. In fact, Mr. Solo, I have been expecting you to come and see me ever since."
"Yes. To persuade me, as Mr. Kuryakin's emissary of course, to let your partner take charge. It is usually you who comes to see me on his behalf. Your powers of, shall we say, polite persuasion being," he paused for a second and frowned. "Oh dear, I really don't want to say ‘better,' shall we settle for ‘more acceptable?' than Mr. Kuryakin's, despite his almost perfect command of the English language. Wouldn't you say, Mr. Solo?"
"Yes, sir," replied Napoleon, who was beginning to realize what Alice must have felt like.
"Well, it was a different Mr. Kuryakin who came to see me today. His persuasion rivaled even your own abilities."
"Yes, sir." The nape of Napoleon's neck was no longer merely tingling.
"Now what did you want to see me about, Mr. Solo? I should be obliged if you could make it quite quick. I am expecting the man who has been attempting to resolve our computer problems. As impressed as I was with Mr. Kuryakin, I didn't want to test his newly found abilities too far. Who knows, we may need to do business with the gentleman's firm again."
"Well, it's about Mr. Kuryakin, actually, sir," Napoleon began, forcing his brain and tongue to work in conjunction with one another.
"Oh, really?" Mr. Waverly lit his pipe and looked at his Chief Enforcement Agent.
Napoleon froze, what could he say? ‘Illya has invited me out to a strip club tonight,' (because no matter how much ‘Jade,' or whatever the owner's name was, tried to dress the place up and call it ‘exotic dancing' — and Napoleon had to admit the place was a high-class establishment — when it came to it the place was a strip club) ‘and I'm worried?' Suddenly it all seemed farcical. "It's nothing, sir. I'm sorry to have bothered you." Napoleon began to back toward the door.
"Are you sure, Mr. Solo? If there is a problem with Mr. Kuryakin…"
"You'll be the first to know," Napoleon answered. He crossed his fingers and hoping that unlike Pinocchio, his nose didn't grow.
He made his way back to the office he shared with Illya, still disquieted but determined to act normally. If Illya wanted to take him to a high-class strip club, then they would go to a high-class strip club.
Nonetheless as he entered their office and Illya glanced up from his desk, his absurdly large glasses halfway down his nose, his hair mussed, and looking all of twenty-one, Napoleon found himself blurting out, "Are you sure you want to go to Jades tonight, Illya?"
"Of course, Napoleon," Illya replied, blinking quickly. "It will be fun."
"Fun?" Napoleon couldn't keep the question from his voice. He had never heard, nor ever expected to hear the dour Russian use such a word. He hadn't realized it even formed part of his friend's vocabulary.
"Yes, fun. Enjoyable. Amusing. Light-hearted. Pleasant. Entertaining. Gratifying. Interesting." A long-fingered hand pushed the glasses back up Illya's nose.
Napoleon held up his hand when it seemed clear that Illya was not going to stop talking. He vaguely wondered just how many synonyms his highly intelligent friend could find. "Yes, thank you, Professor Kuryakin. I do know what ‘fun' means. I sometimes wonder, Illya, just how I managed before you came along as my own personal walking, talking dictionary." His tone was light and he smiled warmly at the younger man, thus he was somewhat disconcerted to see frown lines crease the uncovered part of Illya's pale forehead.
"But I am not a —"
Napoleon again held up his hand. "Not a Professor. Yes, I do know. I was teasing you, Illya. Really, must you always be so literal?" It wasn't intended as a question or even a rebuke. However, Illya's response shook Napoleon.
He blushed, while simultaneously turning even paler, lowered his gaze to stare at his desk and gnawed his lower lip. "I am sorry, Napoleon," he said formally. "It must be very irritating for you."
"What?" Napoleon raised his voice and crossed the room in three quick strides. "Illya?" he demanded, catching his partner's chin and forcing him to look up at him. The shrouded blue gaze watched him anxiously through the tinted lenses. Annoyed, Napoleon tugged the heavy black-framed glasses from Illya. The curtain that Illya rarely erected when looking at Napoleon tripled in thickness. Napoleon opened his mouth just as his phone rang. With a single curse, he was forced to let go of the rounded chin and cross to his desk. "Solo here," he snapped.
By the time he had finished his conversation, Illya had returned to his paperwork, the mood had been broken, and the older man could find no way to return the conversation to its previous state. Sighing to himself and watching Illya studiously avoid looking at him, Napoleon decided not to press things — for now. There was plenty of time. And after all, maybe it was him. Maybe he was just being over-anxious and over-protective, as Mr. Waverly had on more than one occasion told him he was when Illya's welfare was concerned.
Napoleon couldn't remember when he last spent such a dreadful evening. He had certainly never experienced one so appalling while in the company of his closest friend. It had started to exhibit signs of awfulness from the second he collected Illya from his apartment and his partner's first comment was whether Napoleon thought he ‘looked all right.' Still dressed in his trademark black suit, he had exchanged his usual black turtleneck for a red one — one that Napoleon would have sworn had not been in Illya's wardrobe two days ago. Add that to the fact that he had chattered during the entire drive to Jades and Napoleon was ready to call it an evening before it had even begun.
Jades was terrible. As they entered the smoke-filled, dimly lit room, Napoleon recalled that he hadn't visited the place for over six months. Clearly it had undergone a change, and definitely not for the better. He had just opened his mouth to suggest they go elsewhere for a quiet dinner, when Illya plunged into the room at such speed that Napoleon only managed to follow him thanks to the beacon that was the multi-gold colored hair.
From there things got worse. Within a few minutes it was clear that Illya, who never bothered about nudity or closed bathroom doors while in Napoleon's company, simply did not know where to look. Even Napoleon was having trouble with that one. In the end he solved the problem: he watched Illya, and felt all of the agony and embarrassment his friend was so obviously experiencing along with him.
Illya was drinking steadily, which normally Napoleon would not have considered a problem. The slender man could drink his heavier partner under the table any day of the week, but tonight it was clear that the alcohol was a refuge, and that did worry Napoleon.
Finally Napoleon could stand it no longer. He touched Illya's arm across the intimately small table. Red-rimmed blue eyes were turned on him, and Napoleon wondered if his own eyes looked as bad. The sapphires were dull and slightly unfocussed as they stared at Napoleon, who watched as his friend tried to smile brightly. He failed miserably. The music that accompanied the ‘entertainment' was so loud that Napoleon had to bend forward and put his lips right against Illya's ear in order to make himself heard. As he did the glass that Illya had been holding slipped from the suddenly infinitesimally shaking fingers and shattered, and Illya jerked.
Frowning, his unease deepening, Napoleon gave up all pretence and stood up, dragging his slighter partner to his feet and all but manhandling him out of the room.
"Napoleon," Illya, clearly startled, spluttered, as he was tugged across the crowded floor. "What is the matter? Where are we going?"
They reached the relative silence of the street. Napoleon took a deep breath of the suddenly sweet-smelling New York air, drinking in the scents of car fumes, greasy food, rotting rubbish and stale urine — Jades wasn't in the classiest part of the city — like it was a fine bouquet. He only became aware that he was still holding Illya's wrist when he felt his friend start to tug it away. A glance to his right told him that two people were about to enter the alleyway, and as unashamed as he would have been to be caught holding hands with Illya, prudence won out.
Once his hand had been released, Illya did not move away from Napoleon. Instead he took half a step closer, tilted his head back and stared up into Napoleon's face. "Is something wrong, Napasha?" he asked, his voice sounding rough around the edges, the effect no doubt of the smoke. The neon light flared at that moment, lighting up the pale face and making the blond hair shimmer and sparkle as the various shades of the strands were caught by the garish color. Illya looked so forlorn and out of place — he wasn't quite wringing his hands or twisting the cloth of his coat, but he might as well have been — that all of Napoleon's protective instincts kicked in. Any hint of exasperation at being dragged to the club fled.
"No, nothing's wrong, Illyusha. Nothing serious, that is. I just have a bit of a headache from the smoke and the noise, that's all." Well that at least was the truth, if not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
"Oh," said Illya, disconsolately. "I am sorry, my friend. This was not a good idea. I never should have thought that I could… " He trailed off and Napoleon's sheltering compulsion went into overdrive.
He touched the silky hair, brushing it back from Illya's forehead so that he could see the sad blue eyes. "Hey," he said, lightly. "Don't be sorry. It was a very good idea in principle. It isn't your fault that the management has clearly changed, or that every smoker in New York seemed to have chose this evening to visit the place. Or that the person in charge of the music had left his hearing aid at home." His other hand had found its way of its own volition onto Illya's shoulder and he squeezed gently, feeling the tension beneath his grip. He hoped that Illya might respond to the lighthearted words and see the amusement that Napoleon had attempted to portray.
After a second or two, during which the blue stare flickered away and then returned, a ghost of a smile — a real genuine Illya Kuryakin smile, the first one that Napoleon had seen all day — touched the full lips. Napoleon breathed a silent sigh of relief. Before it could vanish he said, "Look why don't we go and find a nice, quiet restaurant somewhere and I'll buy you dinner? I could do with something to eat and you're always hungry." Again he kept his tone light.
A frown crossed Illya's forehead, although he also attempted another smile at the ‘you're always hungry' comment. "A quiet restaurant?" His tone was uncertain. "Are you certain that is what you would like?"
"I assure you, partner mine, that I would like nothing more," Napoleon said with absolute honesty. He squeezed the taut shoulder one final time, before steering Illya around and leading him away from the garish lights.
They went to one of their favorite restaurants where, after one or two forced attempts at brightness by Illya, they settled into their usual comfortable pattern, and the rest of the evening passed pleasantly.
Illya groaned as he dragged the virulent red turtleneck over his head and threw it across the room. He hated it. It made people notice him and that was not good for a spy, especially not for a spy whose hair made him a recognizable target anyway.
The evening hadn't been a total success, but neither had it been a complete disaster — except for his head and nerves. The former of which throbbed. The latter twanged as the kind of exhaustion that only comes after adopting an undercover role began to claim him. The man he had been for the first part of the evening was not the man he was. But he was the man he would become.
He would not lose Napoleon, and if that meant dressing up in vivid clothes, going to the kind of place he hated, being bright, chatty and friendly, then that is what he would do. He was good at undercover work, very good — better than Napoleon — probably the best U.N.C.L.E. had. This was just another role: one that, if he played it for long enough, should become as habitual as breathing. It was what he wanted. What he had to do in order to keep Napoleon by his side as both his dearest friend and his partner. In time it would become less tiring, less of a strain. In time he would learn. He was Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin. He had survived by becoming what he was. Now it was time to change.
With those thoughts in his mind he fell asleep, where he dreamed, as he so often did these days, of Napoleon. He awoke to a damp and sticky groin and felt a flush of embarrassment charge through his body. Over a dozen naked, nubile females had not even elicited as much as a twitch from his body or his mind, whereas a relatively mild dream of being in bed with his partner, who was doing nothing more than holding Illya, kissing him, and gently petting him in a very innocent way with both of them still clothed, had produced an intense, if the state of his pajamas was anything to go by, climax. Sighing and chastising himself, he climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom and a hot shower.
The next four days were even worse. Illya chattered away to him, even asking questions about subjects in which Napoleon knew the Russian had no interest. He even attempted to tell Napoleon some jokes; goodness only knew where he had learned them. He smiled much of the time — his new attempt at a smile. Spoke to everyone they passed in the corridors of Headquarters. Suggested they join other agents when they visited the commissary and when Napoleon reluctantly gave in, chattered away to everyone to such an extent that he failed to eat his lunch. Napoleon felt quite ill and had a permanent headache, together with a sense of foreboding that threatened to swallow him.
They had another disastrous evening out when Illya insisted on dragging Napoleon to another nightclub that was over-loud, over-smoky and over-full. By the time Napoleon returned to his own apartment after dropping his garrulous partner off at his place, his headache had gotten so intense he ended up spending half of the night in the bathroom being sick.
Dawn found him determined to find the underlying cause of what was wrong with his friend. If indeed the person with whom he had spent the previous five days was his Illya.
He arrived at Headquarters even before the lark-like Illya and headed straight for Alexander Waverly's office. Outside, he paused for a second or two and reconsidered. Then the memories of the way Illya had behaved the previous day won out.
He knocked on the door and entered when instructed.
"Mr. Waverly, may I talk to you, please?"
"Of course, Mr. Solo, do take a seat."
"Thank you, sir." Napoleon settled and waited for his boss to clean and light his pipe. He needed the time.
"Well, Mr. Solo? What is the problem?"
Napoleon took a deep breath. Then a second. Mr. Waverly waited, his blue-gray eyes giving nothing away. "It's Illya, sir. Mr. Kuryakin," he added.
"Yes, Mr. Solo, I do happen to know your Russian friend's given name. What is the problem?"
"I don't think he's he, sir."
"Really, Mr. Solo? And may I ask what has led you to this conclusion?"
"He hasn't been himself for a few days. He's been acting strange."
"Strange." Alexander Waverly tone hid the ‘how would anyone know?'
"Yes, sir. For example, we went out the other evening."
"And what is strange about that, Mr. Solo? Had you told me that you and Mr. Kuryakin hadn't been out together for a few days, that I would consider strange behavior."
Napoleon smiled weakly. "Yes, sir. It's not the fact that we went out, spent the evening together that is, but where we went." Mr. Waverly waited. Napoleon threw all his eggs into one basket. "We went to Jades, sir."
He continued to wait.
Finally he broke the heavy silence. "You have heard of the place, haven't you, sir?"
"Of course, Mr. Solo. A favorite place of yours I understand."
That was going a bit far, but it was Illya who mattered at the moment, not himself. "Not quite, sir. But, well, it isn't Illya's."
"Ah. So you've finally worked it out. I did wonder how long it would take you, Mr. Solo. I have to say that I am somewhat disappointed that an agent of your caliber and experience has taken nearly four years. On the other hand we are talking about Mr. Kuryakin, so maybe I shouldn't have expected anything else."
"Sir?" Napoleon began to wonder if everyone in U.N.C.L.E. but himself had been replaced by doubles. Suddenly Mr. Waverly was behaving no less confusingly than Illya.
"I assume that Mr. Kuryakin didn't tell you himself. He did inform me that he wouldn't do so, and I assured him that nor would I, unless you approached me yourself."
"Mr. Kuryakin has told me nothing, sir. I assure you." For the first time Napoleon spoke the whole truth — even if it didn't make an iota of sense to him.
"Good. I did ponder over his appointment at the time. Not only was he a Russian with links to the KGB, whom I gather he managed to upset on more than one occasion, with degrees from three different countries, and occasionally has a less than respectful manner of speaking, but with this to consider as well, I did have to think several times. Not that I found out about it until after he had been through Survival School, in fact not until he joined the New York office. However, I weighed up what someone of his intelligence, wit, knowledge, and expertise could bring to U.N.C.L.E., and decided to take a chance. I do not regret my decision. And I hope that you will not now that you know."
Mr. Waverly was speaking English, of that Napoleon was certain; he just wasn't making sense. Know what? Napoleon wondered, falling further and further down the rabbit hole. I don't know anything. He opted for a safe reply, not even certain whether there was anything the other man expected him to respond to. "Sir?" He made the word a question, a statement, a simple fact, all in one.
Mr. Waverly frowned over the smoke. "I hope that you will not have a problem with Mr. Kuryakin remaining your partner now that you know the truth about him."
I'm sure I won't have. If I only knew what the hell you were talking about. He took a gamble. "Oh, no, sir." He crossed his fingers. "No problem at all." He smiled elaborately.
"I'm pleased to hear it, Mr. Solo. I hoped that would be the case. After all if a man of my age can accept it, then someone of your generation, even given your obvious proclivity for the female gender, should not have a problem with the fact that Mr. Kuryakin is a homosexual."
"Homosexual?" Napoleon squeaked, hitting the bottom of the hole and continuing to tumble.
"Oh, dear, is that not term in vogue with you young people? What else do they use? Ah, yes, ‘gay,' I believe."
"Gay?" Napoleon parroted, watching his boss through the smoke. He was more convinced than ever that the man he was staring at had been replaced along with his, to quote the elderly Brit, ‘Russian friend.'
Alexander Waverly was now frowning and studying Napoleon. "You had worked this out for yourself, hadn't you, Mr. Solo?"
No! "Yes," Napoleon hastened to reassure. "Yes. That's it. I had worked out that Illya is —" He broke off, unable to say the word. "About Mr. Kuryakin," he finished limply, feeling a hundred kinds of fool.
"And you are certain that it isn't going to prove a problem between you?"
"No, sir. No problem at all. Everything's just fine. May I go now, sir?" Napoleon stood up and began to back toward the door, hoping that he could escape before Mr. Waverly realized that the news was a complete surprise to him.
Or that it was Napoleon himself who had asked to see him, not vice versa.
Or that Napoleon believed he had uncovered two infiltrators.
Or that it might well be a problem discovering that Illya was gay, but not necessarily for the reasons Mr. Waverly was suggesting. Not, of course, that Illya was gay, because Mr. Waverly wasn't Mr. Waverly, thus what the pseudo-Mr. Waverly told him about Illya — whichever Illya that was — couldn't possibly be true.
If his partner of four years had been that way inclined, Napoleon would have known. After all they had all but lived in one another's pockets since the day the Russian arrived in America. Although it would explain Illya's almost pathological dislike of women, but no, that was just Illya, he seemed equally disinterested in men. Besides, if Illya was gay, then Napoleon had wasted four years, and in their business no agent could afford to waste that. No, if Illya had been gay, he would have recognized Napoleon's subtle advances. Unless he had and he didn't return his partner's interest! On that sober thought Napoleon escaped from his superior's office.
Napoleon strode into his and Illya's office and bit back a curse when Illya raised his head and gave him a bright smile. "Hello, Napoleon, are you well?"
"Morning, Illya. Fine, thank you. And you?" Well brought up and used to social chitchat, Napoleon responded automatically.
"I too am very well, thank you for asking. It is a beautiful morning."
That was it. Napoleon had finally had enough. He had to solve this one way or another. He walked over to Illya's desk and snagged his partner's wrist. "Come with me," he growled. Before the Russian — if that's what he was — could object, Napoleon had dragged him out of the room and down the corridor, ignoring the odd puzzled glance that was cast their way.
They got to the room that Illya used as a laboratory and Napoleon ushered the slighter man inside, swiftly closing and bolting the door. As he turned and switched off the surveillance camera, Illya's blue eyes opened wide and confusion crossed his pale face.
Napoleon spun round, drew his gun, and aimed it straight at the other man. "Right. Just who the hell are you, and what have you done with my partner?" he demanded, moving a step closer, but ensuring that he remained out of range of the blond.
Illya raised his hands in the age-old gesture of surrender and widened his eyes even more, his mouth falling open. "Napoleon?" The single word clearly asked several questions.
"Well?" Napoleon urged, refusing to answer any of them, as he flipped off the safety catch and aimed more accurately. "Who are you? And what have you done with Illya?"
"I do not understand, Napasha." The wide blue eyes seemed genuine, as did the fact that ‘Illya' was making no attempt to escape or draw his own weapon. But Napoleon wasn't going to let himself be lulled into a false sense of security. Of course that's what a double would do. Thrush, or whoever had planted Illya's replacement, would know that Illya would never attack his partner.
"I am Illya. I am your partner. Napoleon, what is the matter?" Illya's right hand moved fractionally, and Napoleon began to close his finger around the trigger. The other man froze.
"You are not Illya. I know my partner and you are not behaving like him. Who are you?" Napoleon risked a step nearer, and despite the circumstances, drank in the clean, cool, safe, vanilla and forest scent that always surrounded the man he loved.
Illya began to speak, his voice flat and heavily accented. His eyes held Napoleon's, the gaze unwavering and unblinking. "I am Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin. I was born on 3rd November 1938 in Russia. I obtained a degree in Chemistry and Physics at University of Georgia in the Ukraine, where I also studied gymnastics. I later attended the Sorbonne where I studied Applied Science. I then achieved a PhD in Quantum Mechanics at Cambridge University in England. I—"
Napoleon cut into the recital. "All that's well-known stuff. Tell me something I don't know!"
For a moment, a flash of soft amusement passed through the brilliant blue eyes and Illya's now pale lips twitched again. Napoleon glared, daring the man to comment. Finally the cool voice continued. "What would you like me to tell you, Napasha?" He stressed his own personal name for Napoleon, but Napoleon pushed that to one side. Again that was something that could easily be discovered. His Illya had started to use it more and more, even when they weren't alone. Anyone could have heard him. "Shall I tell you about the latest advances in the field of quantum mechanics? Or about chemical research?"
Napoleon glared. "You know that's your realm of expertise, not mine," he snapped, and then silently cursed when he realized what he had said.
More certain than ever that the man was playing with him like a trout-fisherman, he risked another step nearer. Then he realized that being so close to the man he still believed not to be his partner was not entirely sensible. The last thing he wanted was for his gun to be snatched from his hand. He moved back and glared at his companion, daring him to comment at the clear lapse. "If you are Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin, tell me something that only he and I would know."
The blue eyes appraised him carefully and he read his companion as easily as if it really was Illya standing there with his hands still raised in surrender. "Well?" he barked. "Tell me or I'll hand you over to the medics and let them decide!"
The Russian accent got even deeper, almost to the stage where Napoleon couldn't quite work out what the blond man was saying, and his voice grew softer. "Forgive me, Napasha," he whispered, for the first time letting his eyes flicker to the floor.
Napoleon waited. His throat now dry, his palms damp as he, in what he hoped was a surreptitious way, adjusted his grip on his gun. Suddenly the blond head flew back up and Napoleon read sorrow and regret in the blue gaze. "When you were seventeen you were driving the car that was involved in an accident that caused the death of one of your companions. Even though the police and everyone else cleared you of culpability, you have never…" The quiet voice ceased. Napoleon felt the cocked gun taken from his hands as he sank to the floor shaking, his hands over his ears to block out the words.
Seconds later firm, comforting arms were wrapped around him and he was pulled against the black wool sweater that his partner was wearing that day, and held. As one hand stroked his hair, Illya murmured in Russian. The words Napoleon could not understand, the sentiment he could.
"I am sorry, my friend." Illya finally switched to English as he lifted Napoleon's head from his chest. "But I could not think of anything else that would convince you I am your partner. Your Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin."
Napoleon still couldn't speak. The incident had been over seventeen years ago, and it was like Illya had said, entirely not his fault. But still he saw the car, its brakes cut, careering down the road, his companions screaming from the back and passenger seats. Still saw his white hands as they gripped the wheel, trying desperately to control the runaway. Saw again the barrier come up to hit the car and heard the screams die out as the car smashed into the hillside and came to a stop. Seconds later the shouts and screams had turned to something worse as a whoosh of gas igniting spilled through the area. All around him bodies scrambled for door handles, fighting, pushing, pulling. Then he was lying on the ground, a body on top of him, another by his side, another still over his legs and the car was exploding, with Janey still inside.
No one blamed Napoleon — not even Janey's family — in fact everyone was completely sympathetic, and the other friends who had been in the car had stood by him and helped him. Somehow he had managed to, if not put it behind him, then at least find a way to cope with it, and make a life for himself where he would help other people. He had never told another living soul — not even Alexander Waverly knew — until the night he had found himself, under the influence of too much Russian vodka, telling Illya. His friend had listened sympathetically, reassured Napoleon that it couldn't have been his fault, supported him and cleaned him up when the results of too much vodka erupted, and sat by his side holding his hand until Napoleon had fallen asleep.
Three months later Illya had achieved what Napoleon and the police in the sleepy little town had failed to achieve: he found the person who, out of jealousy, had cut the brake lines. Napoleon had never discovered quite how Illya had made the man confess, but the man's overly pale face and unmarked and shaking body told Napoleon that maybe there were things about his Russian partner which even he did not want to know. Illya had escorted the man back to the small town, returning home two days later, as cool and distant as ever. That night he had invited himself up to Napoleon's apartment, a rare occurrence indeed, where he had taken an oath to die before telling anyone of the event. With anyone else it would have been dramatic, with the Russian it was a simple fact.
"Napasha?" Again Illya used the soothing name and this time touched his cheek. Napoleon was regaining his equilibrium now that he knew that the man who held him was his partner, and decided that he was glad that he had had the foresight to switch off the security cameras. Nonetheless, it was time they moved. Although it wasn't unusual for Illya to lock himself in his lab and switch off the cameras when working on something particularly secret, he usually warned the guards before doing so. As much as Napoleon wanted to stay where he was, and as little as he really cared what other people thought of him, he didn't relish the idea of security turning up and finding them huddled in the middle of the floor, and he knew that until he moved, Illya would not. For a second he allowed himself to imagine the look on Illya's face should they find themselves surrounded by security. He would continue to sit there, holding Napoleon and stroking his hair; his face and eyes daring anyone to as much as look oddly, let alone say anything. And as Napoleon swore that the stare could freeze people on the spot, he almost felt sorry for the men.
He allowed himself a half chuckle, which brought Illya's full attention back to him. "Napoleon?"
"I'm all right, Illya. I was just imaging the looks on people's faces if they walked in now.
Illya offered a faint smile and a half shrug, otherwise his reaction was obvious: the comment wasn't even worth a response. "In that case I had better switch the camera back on, if you are certain you are ready to move."
No, Napoleon wasn't ready to move. He would never be ready to give up those strong arms, but discretion won out. "I'm certain." He let his hand slip into Illya's for a second. He squeezed, felt the pressure returned, and then watched Illya glide to his feet, before helping Napoleon stand up. In spite of the warmth of the room, Napoleon felt cold and bereft.
Illya crossed to the camera and flicked a switch, before moving to the telephone and reporting that ‘all was well.' Then he turned back to his partner. "Napoleon?" His voice was hesitant, quiet.
"Yes." Napoleon busied himself with tucking his gun away, idly noticing that Illya had resafetied it after he had taken it from Napoleon.
"Why did you think that I was not your partner?"
Ah. A logical question from a logical man. Napoleon knew he had to explain, but also knew that his explanation would lead to him having to ask an obvious
Question. It wasn't a question that he wanted to ask in the bowels of U.N.C.L.E. "Later?" He made it a question, but both men knew it wasn't.
For a brief second Illya stared at him, a slight frown creasing his brow. Then he moved toward Napoleon, his flowing grace and style evident. Napoleon held his breath. Illya really was beautiful, and if he was really Illya, then Mr. Waverly was really Mr. Waverly. Which meant that what Napoleon had been told was true; which meant…
Napoleon swallowed hard, and for a fraction of a second considered forgetting about later, forgetting about talking, and simply reaching across the small distance that separated him from his closest friend and pulling Illya into his arms and kissing him, letting his actions speak for themselves. As the blue eyes widened again, he wondered just what he had given away to Illya, and was aware that once again his palms were damp and his mouth dry. The one thing stopping him from following through on his desire, he realized, was not the camera. Rather it was the fact that Illya had never made an approach to Napoleon, not once in their four year partnership, but surely he must have known…
"Pozzhe." Although Napoleon didn't understand the word, he did comprehend his partner. Illya had indeed agreed to ‘later'.'
"So why have you been behaving like you have been?" Napoleon finally asked the question that his partner had been dreading. Illya briefly considered lying. However he knew that although it was a skill at which he was excellent, he had never managed to lie convincingly to his partner — or vice versa. Not that they did lie to one another. It was a matter of honor to Illya that he never deliberately lied to Napoleon, at least not over anything serious. Little things, games almost, were a different matter, such as Illya telling Napoleon that he didn't have any money on him when his friend needed some for a date. However, even these white lies never worked. Napoleon always seemed to know when Illya wasn't telling the truth.
Thus, it was the truth or — or maybe the end of the partnership, or a least a severe denting to the unwavering trust they had for one another. But if Illya told the truth, then maybe it would mean the end anyway. He took a large swallow of the smooth vodka and poured himself another glass, leaned back against Napoleon's couch cushions and tried to appear relaxed.
"I overheard three men talking, and what they said made me think." It wasn't a lie, just an evasion.
"Well?" Napoleon watched his partner through hooded eyes. Illya hated it when Napoleon did that because it meant that he was unable to truly read his friend. He raised an eyebrow, merely delaying the inevitable. Napoleon's fond, exasperated sigh let him know that he had seen through the ruse. Nonetheless, the older man played the game, but by their rules. "What exactly did these three men say that made you think?"
Damn Napoleon. Why did he have to use that extra word? Why couldn't he have stuck to ‘what did these three men say?' Illya thought his way swiftly around the problem. Using its precise meaning ‘exactly' meant that Illya wasn't intended to be vague, but to be accurate and precise, correct, without error — to tell Napoleon verbatim even, all of which Illya could do. He just didn't want to. So mentally crossing his fingers and asking for forgiveness, he proceeded to give a less than exact reply.
"They implied." He paused. No, here he could be exact. There was no ‘implying' about what they had said. "They said that I was—" Again he paused and chose the non-sexual references. "—boring, cold and unyielding. That I had little conversation that was not about quantum mechanics or similar things, and that was when I bothered to speak at all." He broke off. Napoleon was watching him closely, his half-closed chocolate brown eyes and his formal face giving nothing away.
"And?" his friend asked finally.
And? Wasn't that enough? What did Napoleon want? Blood? No, just the truth, came the swift reply. "And that people rarely seem to understand me when I do speak."
Illya began to fidget. He was quickly running out of acceptable ands. He searched his near perfect memory and came up with another few things. "And that I come across high and mighty, and that I have no personality." He stopped and stared defiantly at his partner, daring him to speak a single word.
Napoleon met the challenge and threw it back. "So?"
Well, at least that was a different word, but one that flummoxed Illya, a feeling he did not enjoy. He opened his mouth and closed it again when he realized that he didn't have an answer, mainly because he didn't understand the question. To cover his unease he poured another drink and watched Napoleon watch him.
Napoleon paused to refill his glass with cognac and took pity on him. "Illya," he said, moving forward slightly and touching Illya's arm, the touch reassuring and warm. "I'm your partner and your friend. Your closest friend, I believe."
"Yes," replied Illya, still perplexed. "You are, Napasha. I've never…" He broke off. Emotion didn't come easily to him and he stared helplessly at the other man.
"I know," Napoleon said softly. "So please don't be offended, tovarishch, but…" This time it was he who broke off, and Illya knew why.
He pushed himself to his feet, almost tripping over the coffee table. In fact if it hadn't been for Napoleon's swift movement, he would have fallen. He shook off the steadying hand, and glared at his companion. He was furious at himself as he felt tears he had long since forgotten how to shed rush to his eyes. "But," he growled, shaking with the suppressed emotion. "But," he ground out again, blinking furiously as he fought for control. "But," he managed a third time. "What they say is true. Yes? Well, Napoleon? Well? Or are you going to lie to me?" His voice was quivering and so heavily accented that he barely understood himself.
Watching Napoleon frown for a second gave him great pleasure, and the fury within him continued to rise. Then Napoleon, who had hitherto remained seated, stood up and moved closer. He deliberately used his three-inch height advantage. Fighting his body's natural response, Illya held his ground, tipped his head back and stared up. "Well?" he spat.
"I'm not going to lie to you, Illya. I never have and I am not going to start now. Yes, what they say is mostly true."
Illya spun on his heel and let loose a torrent of Russian while heading at full speed for the door. The only problem was that Napoleon had clearly anticipated his move and was there before him, leaning back against it. The only way out was through his partner.
Illya paused, stared at the man, deliberately composing his face into the look that had resulted in more than one suspect losing control of their bodily functions. Napoleon merely widened his eyes for a second and then shrugged. "Try it," he said calmly.
Illya spat fire and ice back. "I wish to leave," he ground out.
"And I wish you to stay."
"You cannot hold me against my will."
"Can't I?" Napoleon asked mildly. It was a ruse and they both knew it. If Illya really intended to leave, he could have done so. The fact that it would probably have meant being arrested and imprisoned for the murder of his partner was known to both men. Napoleon may have decided years ago that there were some things he would rather not know about his Russian partner, but Illya knew that hadn't stopped the American from finding out.
Illya broke the stare and turned away, launching into another rush of Russian.
"You know, one day I really must take the trouble to learn your language." Napoleon's tone was mild. They could have been having a commonplace conversation on an ordinary day.
"I keep offering to teach you." Illya's response was automatic. It was an age-old battle between them. Secretly he wondered whether Napoleon was as ignorant of the Russian language as he pretended to be. However, very few non-natives ever learned it perfectly, and Illya's two outbursts would have been hard for a non-native to follow, even someone who had studied the language closely for several years.
Illya's fury was passing, only to be replaced by what had caused the rage: cold, pure fear, the kind he hadn't realized he could feel. He couldn't allow himself to feel it, because it would weaken him. Emotion did that. In fact, he told himself, that was the problem. He had allowed himself to care about Napoleon and his thoughts. It had weakened him and he couldn't allow it.
He clasped onto the solution.
The lesser of two evils.
He whirled back to face his tormentor, now totally under control, and saw a new wariness cross the handsome tanned face and touch the brown eyes. He felt pleasure at the sight and pushed the emotion away. He would consign his pleasure, just as he consigned every other emotion to where it belonged. The last four years had been an aberration. A more than momentary one, but one he had to get over. He would ask to be returned to his homeland. U.N.C.L.E. could use him there; his skills were plentiful. He would apply for the Head of Section Two in the small Russian section, something to which he hadn't hitherto given more than a cursory thought.
He spoke again, his voice completely under his control now. Flat, cold, distant and unaccented. Again he forced down the flush of pleasure as Napoleon's unease grew. "In that case." He paused and viciously played his king. "Mr. Solo, sir." The shock on the mobile face almost made him smile. Well, Napoleon strictly speaking was his superior, and the one thing Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin had been taught was respect for one's superiors, even if they didn't deserve it.
"Illya." The word was a whisper as Napoleon moved closer.
Illya tilted his head back further, feeling his hair touch his shoulders as the over-long strands tumbled onto them. The horror and pain that appeared on his adversary's face almost broke him. However, Illya dug deep within his arsenal, reached for the almost unfathomable level inside himself. There he found the one thing that made him U.N.C.L.E.'s deadliest and most destructive weapon: his pure, iceberg fury.
It was the thing that allowed him to survive his years of abuse firstly in the orphanage, then at the hands of the KGB and in the Russian navy. It was, if he was prepared to admit it, the thing that had made Mr. Waverly accept him into U.N.C.L.E as a permanent Section Two employee. The shrewd man had done his research and seen inside the furious Russian killing machine. He had seen past the barriers of bitterness, touched what Illya was capable of, and used it. It was the thing that made Illya able to kill without mercy or remorse. The thing that let him take out five Thrush agents after he had extracted all the information they held and walk away doing nothing more than sheathing his gun and knife. It was also the weapon that he knew would be the cause of his ultimate destruction should Napoleon Solo die anything other than a natural death. If that happened Mr. Waverly would not, could not, let the Russian agent live. Any other agent, even Napoleon Solo, Mr. Waverly could leash. He could not leash Illya Kuryakin. Illya was a time bomb, one that the years spent with Napoleon had temporarily paused, but never completely defused.
He attained the level needed to achieve the ice necessary and hurled it at his one-time friend and partner. He was determined to destroy Napoleon before he, like everyone before him, tried to destroy Illya. It was only when incomprehension was added to the shock and pain that Napoleon displayed, that Illya realized that he had spoken, as he always did at such times, in his native tongue.
The drain on Illya, especially given the circumstances, was severe and once more he touched the iceberg and dragged her to the surface. He bit his cheek to help focus on the pain. When he spoke, his voice dripped frost and once more held no trace of his accent. No trace of any accent. No trace of anything. "In that case, Mr. Solo, sir," he repeated, using the vicious words to help him achieve his aim. Then he played his ace. "You will not oppose my application for the post of Head of Section Two in the Russian office." He tried to hold on to the despair, hurt, and confusion that appeared on the ashen face that stared at him. However, it was costing Illya dearly. The price was more than he had ever paid before, even on those rare occasions when he had inadvertently been the cause of an innocent's death or injury. He dug his nails into his palms. The physical pain helped him and he forced himself to continue his clipped flat intonation.
"After all, I have all the relevant qualifications. I am a top field agent. I have research and lab skills. I can repair and maintain a computer system. I speak the language and—" He drove the final nail into the coffin. "—I have no ties."
Time stood still. As a scientist Illya knew that it didn't. Yet it did. He waited, letting the taste of iron run into his mouth. He waited, barely blinking, holding the stunned brown gaze and returning his own empty one, fighting the strain and holding his ground, biting his other cheek in an attempt to collect the physical pain.
Napoleon said nothing. He just watched. His body was tense, his face wary, his eyes unfathomable. Everything about him was unclear except for one thing: pain. A bottomless pain, the kind that Illya had never before known. Even as Illya observed, he felt Napoleon's pain reach out and begin to insinuate itself inside Illya where it matched his own hurt, forcing him to grasp down on his icy fury and touch it. "Nyet," he ground out, digging his nails in harder and turning his teeth onto his bottom lip.
His partner — ex-partner — moved forward a pace. Illya took a step back and cursed himself. "No!" he cried again, dragging his eyes away from the other man, at which point he knew he had lost. Furious and unwilling to surrender, he once more dug deep within himself and tried to capture the iceberg. She eluded him. Desperate now, Illya lashed out — literally — and swiped everything off the coffee table, slashing his hand on the broken glass.
As he paused just long enough to tear out the shard that had lodged itself under his skin, Napoleon moved. The next thing Illya knew, he was being held in a grip that he could only sever by breaking the arms that held him — which, in spite of everything, he could not do. But the fight had gone out of him. Instead of trying to escape he sagged in the embrace that held him, and sobbed harshly, answering Napoleon's silent question with a stream of Russian.
"English, Lusha, English," Napoleon begged over and over, smoothing Illya's damp hair and ignoring the blood that stained his suit.
Forcing himself to translate, Illya managed a few words in halting English. "Going to leave before left me."
"What? Illya for the love of God make sense. Who's leaving you?"
"You," Illya said, taking advantage of Napoleon's sudden loosening of his grip to retreat slightly. Napoleon allowed him to move.
"I'm not leaving you, Illya."
"Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but you will." Illya managed to pull himself together enough to talk, if not fluently, then at least coherently. "They said so."
"The same people who said all those other things about me, which you, Na—" He started to say the other man's name and thought better of it. "Said were true. Therefore it makes sense that if they are correct about one thing they are about the other. They said that you would tire of me because of my lack of personality, my lack of conversation, my—"
"Enough. I may not have quite your perfect recall, my dear Russian friend, but I do remember what they said about you. Illya, Illya, Illya." Suddenly Napoleon was smiling and shaking his head. "Oh, Illya," he said again. "Since when did you start listening to what other people think about you? Since when did another's opinion matter?"
"Yours always did," Illya answered softly, once again unwilling to lie to the man he still loved.
"Then why are you not waiting to hear my opinion, rather than just assuming?"
"You have already told me your opinion, Napoleon."
"No, I don't think I have."
"Do not play games with me, my friend. You said that what those men said about me was mostly true. Are you now intending to deny that? Are you now intending to lie to me?" Illya had moved closer to his partner, so close that his head was tilted so far back it was putting a kink in his neck. It was not entirely comfortable, but the enforced closeness might be intimidating. It often was to men. Napoleon's rich, tangy scent infiltrated Illya's nostrils, tantalizing and teasing him as it always did. He suddenly realized that moving so close to Napoleon was not necessarily a wise thing to have done. He started to take a step backward, but was caught by the steely grip of Napoleon's hands on his upper arms. He gave in and remained still.
"No, Illya, I am not about to lie to you. The very fact that you know that if I said their words were not true, that I would be deceiving you—" Illya blinked and tried to follow his friend's convoluted sentence. Napoleon pressed on, tightening his grip but somehow turning it into an embrace rather than an incarceration. Illya told himself that his senses were playing tricks with him. Napoleon held him captive; he was not cuddling him. "—Should tell you that…" Napoleon broke off and frowned, shaking his head and blinking several times. Illya found himself watching the flashes of amber in the dark chocolate, funny he had never really noticed them before. But then he was not usually quite this close to his friend for so long a time. The part of his mind that was listening to his partner was amused; it seemed that the great orator had lost track of his own sentence.
"What I'm trying to say, partner mine, is that you might well be all those things, but I don't give a damn. I like you that way. You're my Illya Kuryakin and I wouldn't have you any other way."
Illya blinked hard several times and opened his mouth to speak, ignoring for the moment the terribly proprietorial manner in which his partner had said ‘you're my Illya Kuryakin.' After all, they were both dreadfully possessive of one another — Mr. Waverly had commented on the fact on more than one occasion. "You mean that?"
"Yes. I mean that, Illyusha."
"I do not bore you?"
"Quite the opposite." Napoleon smiled down at Illya, who was still far from convinced, but let himself settle into what was now clearly an embrace.
"My coldness, lack of personality, high and mighty attitude, uncompromising manner and inability to talk about anything remotely understandable by the general populace does not bother you?" Illya flattened his accent and held the warm gaze.
To his surprise Napoleon chuckled. The noise was a deep, dense sound as balmy and comforting as the amber flecked gaze that held him captive. "Ah, well that, my dearest friend, is where that oh-so-perfect memory has failed you this time." Illya cocked an eyebrow, ordering his partner to explain. Napoleon obliged. "If you cast that I-have-an-IQ-of-over-two-hundred mind of yours back to what I said, you'll discover that you missed a vital word. And then a second one a short time ago."
Napoleon sounded altogether too cheerful for Illya's liking, and his head was beginning to pound with the effort of keeping his body under control, together with the overabundance of emotion that he had shed earlier, and the role he had been playing for several days. He tried desperately to cast his mind back and recall Napoleon's words, but all he heard was his friend agreeing that he was all the things the three men had said he was.
Finally he gave in and with a shrug and a shake of his head that momentarily blinded him — maybe it really was time for a haircut — admitted defeat. He expected Napoleon to laugh, to tease him, as he did on the other rare occasions when the Kuryakin brain let him down.
However, Napoleon didn't laugh, didn't tease, he just smiled his fond, bemused, indulgent smile, the one Illya knew was reserved just for him. The one that occasionally irritated him, or rather made him feel that he should be aggravated — he actually never was — because it always made him feel like a child being pandered to by an adult. Napoleon was only eight years older than him, but sometimes those eight years seemed like a lifetime.
Then to add to Illya's surprise, he felt himself tugged even closer to Napoleon and felt his partner's arms close around his back. His head found its way, seemingly of its own volition and worryingly unerringly, onto Napoleon's shoulder, where he was shocked to find himself snuggling. He never snuggled. And yet… Napoleon spoke, his mouth brushing the top of Illya's hair, his breath warming the slighter man's scalp. "I said, Lusha mine—" once more the possessive term crept in. "—that what those people said was mostly true. Later I then said that you ‘might well be all those things.'"
Still Illya said nothing. He was attempting to get his mind around the words his friend had spoken. Napoleon pulled back far enough so that Illya's head was no longer on the broad shoulder. "Look at me, Illya," he instructed. Illya obliging tilted his head back again and looked up at his friend. "Mostly. Might," Napoleon reiterated, stressing both words. Illya opened his mouth to point out that the use of ‘might' was, given the sentence structure, perfectly correct grammatically, and then closed it again with a snap as the true meaning of what Napoleon was trying to say penetrated his brain.
"Oh," he managed, hoping he didn't look as foolish as he sounded. "Then you are saying…" He trailed off, still not certain that his English, British or American, hadn't failed him.
"That you do tend to come over as all of those things with most people, but not with me. You are far from cold, have an engaging personality, yield to my wishes far more than is good for me, and lost your ‘I know better than you' attitude within a few weeks of us being partnered. Now what else was there? Oh, yes, and I do understand you, most of the time. I have to confess that I do get a little lost when you start talking about scientific theories and the construction of the latest jazz recording, but no more so than you get lost when I go on about baseball or use a large number of American idioms."
Illya frowned, still not entirely convinced. "But I do not talk a great deal. You cannot deny that. You yourself have teased me about it on occasions."
"Just as you tease me over all my dalliances. Illya, being with you is like a breath of fresh air. If I want someone to provide constant chatter, I have any number of girls I can call and invite out. The silence we share is never strained. I feel more at ease in the quietness with you than I do during any conversation with anyone else. And anyone who took the time and trouble to get to know you would agree with everything I've said."
"I do not make it easy for people to get to know me."
"No, you don't. And that's partly why people do have this skewed view of you. But, Illya, beneath the easy going banter, charm and savoir-faire that I present to the world, how many people really know me? I'll tell you, shall I? One. You."
"Oh," said Illya. It seemed to be fast becoming his favorite word.
"So, we'll have no more talk about me leaving you because I'm bored of you, or you transferring to the Russian office. Okay? And we'll have no more of the fake Illya I've lived with for the past five days. No more visits to strip clubs or smiles that look as false as the color that comes out of a bottle of hair dye. They made me shiver, Illya. They made me cold. The Illya Kuryakin I've been with for the past few days is the Illya Kuryakin I would be encouraging to transfer to our Russian office." Napoleon once more pushed Illya away. Illya hadn't even realized that he had settled back into the embrace until the movement jolted him. "Okay?" he demanded, shaking Illya slightly.
Illya let his head fall back and looked at his friend from under his eyelashes. "Is that an order, Mr. Solo?" he enquired quietly, letting his accent soften and intensify.
"You bet your life it is, Agent Kuryakin," the Chief Enforcement Agent responded, his tone official and one that Illya had not heard directed at him for well over three years. It might have worked, if having Illya quaking and dry mouthed was the aim, but for the twinkle in the dark eyes, and the smile that made Napoleon's lips twitch.
Unable to stop himself, Illya collapsed back against the bigger man spluttering with laughter. Moments later Napoleon tightened his grip around Illya's body and started to laugh too.
It felt unbelievably right and utterly wonderful. And simultaneously dangerously wrong and potentially lethal to their partnership, not to mention Illya's state of mind. Pulling himself together he tried to move away, but Napoleon used his height and weight advantage and Illya found himself captured and held firm. He could struggle, he could escape, he had gotten out of tighter holds than the one his friend had him in. But unless Napoleon was willing to let him go, it would take a considerable effort, and tired of his act, Illya wasn't certain he had the strength to fight. So he remained in the embrace and concentrated on reciting the periodic table to himself in an attempt to make his body behave.
Illya felt warm and just right in Napoleon's arms. He fitted perfectly in a way that few of Napoleon's women, who were usually taller than his partner and were often if not heavier than at least of a larger build, did. The golden mane smelled of heather and lemons and it was silky and warm against Napoleon's cheek. Illya's head was back on Napoleon's shoulder, resting perfectly as if it belonged there, and his hands rested warm and reassuring on Napoleon's back. It was maybe a little unfair of Napoleon to have wrapped his arms around Illya's, basically ensuring that his slighter partner could not easily escape the embrace, but maybe it was time to cease playing fair. It wasn't the first time he had held Illya — he had held him many times, touched virtually every part of the lithe body, and had been touched by Illya in return. He had done things for Illya that he had never dreamed of doing for anyone, indeed the prospect of doing them for anyone else made him feel quite uneasy. He had realized well over three years ago that there was nothing that he would not do for his friend, and he knew only too well that the reverse was true — he had seen Illya in action too many times to have any doubts
Now he was wondering whether he dared take a gamble and risk friendship and partnership, and take their relationship to another level. Having ascertained that Illya really was Illya, albeit an Illya under some belief that he needed to change, and that Alexander Waverly was Alexander Waverly, then it stood to reason that what Number One Section One had told Napoleon about Illya was true: Illya was gay. So why had he not responded to Napoleon's admittedly covert overtures? Was he uninterested in his partner in that way? All indications would point to the answer being no. Illya was comfortable around Napoleon, flirted with him, teased him, was always ready and available to go out for the evening or for lunch when Napoleon suggested it. He willingly shared bathrooms, and less salubrious places and beds with Napoleon, and didn't seem over-anxious to draw a line over which neither of them should intrude in the bed. On more than one occasion they had been forced to share single beds, and you don't do that with someone with whom you are uneasy. And yet, Illya had never responded to Napoleon's overtures, nor had he given any kind of come-on of his own at all.
Could it be possible that he hadn't picked up Napoleon's signals? Did he not realize that his partner was bisexual? How experienced was he? Mr. Waverly had indicated that Illya was homosexual, but that didn't necessarily mean that he was a practicing homosexual, did it? In fact given his home country's views on the matter, Napoleon wondered whether his friend had any experience. But he had studied both at the Sorbonne and Cambridge, and the latter had certainly had its fair share of notorious homosexuals, especially ones linked with Russia. And yet for Illya to have carried out any kind of relationship, even a string of one-night stands, without Napoleon's knowledge would have been difficult at best. Napoleon was well aware of the name Illya had been given by a number of their colleagues and although he had objected quite forcibly when he heard it, nonetheless The Ice Prince did have a frighteningly convincing ring to it. Illumination like the strongest light bulb being turned on hit him: it wasn't that Illya was uninterested in his partner; it was simply that Napoleon's hints had been too subtle. Illya may have been an experienced and ruthless killer, with three degrees, and more knowledge of one side of life than Napoleon would ever have, but when it came to sex he was really quite innocent.
Finally Napoleon decided to stop trying to figure Illya out — he had always thought that would take him a lifetime — and to do what he did best: go for a full frontal attack. "Illya," he asked, and sensed the cocked eyebrow. "Are you gay?" He held his breath and waited, not entirely certain what to expect. Illya raised his head from where it rested on Napoleon's shoulder, tipped it back even further than usual, frowned, and silently asked for elucidation.
Napoleon swallowed. Damn, why did the man who spoke eight languages fluently and at least an extra half-dozen more than adequately seem to struggle with the simplest of idioms? He took a deep breath. "Homosexual." And then added for good measure, "A man who is attracted to his own sex."
"Yes, thank you, Napoleon," Illya shot back. "I do know what homosexual means." Illya hadn't moved from the embrace, but the slender body had become taut, shutters had slammed down over the ice-and-fire-shooting gaze, and Illya's natural body scent and mingled cologne had increased.
Napoleon waited, loosening his grip just enough to allow his friend to escape should he wish to do so. The pale face seemed impassive, but to a man who had spent four years learning and reading the myriad of emotions that Illya displayed almost imperceptibly, it contained a vast amount of information. The stretched silence alone answered the question, and Napoleon was tempted not to force his partner to answer, but to simply tug Illya back into his arms, lower his lips and kiss him.
However, he decided to wait.
Eyes still shrouded, body in defense mode, Illya finally answered. It didn't surprise Napoleon that the Russian answered in his native tongue. "Da." Now Illya let his head fall forward. His shoulders slumped and the tension and wariness increased.
Napoleon felt a wave of jubilation and excitement flow through his body, replacing the blood and making him almost dizzy. "Thank God for that," he murmured. Illya's head jerked back up as if on elastic at Napoleon's words. Napoleon swiftly released Illya's arms, moving his hands instead to either side of the pale cheeks, cupping his beloved's face and lowering his lips to find Illya's. They were soft and warm and still under Napoleon's own, and the taller man heard a strangled gasp come from Illya's throat. Keeping the pressure gentle and the kiss chaste, he drew his partner toward him and continued the kiss.
Tentatively, as if uncertain, Illya began to return the kiss, his arms sliding around Napoleon's neck and lacing themselves at the nape. The kiss was the most naive Napoleon could remember experiencing, but the most exhilarating because of the purity and the man with whom he was experiencing it. He slid his hands further up Illya's face, letting them glide into the silky hair and urging Illya's head even nearer. Illya let himself be gathered in; settling his body against Napoleon's, where it rested in perfect harmony. Against his thigh Napoleon could feel his friend's erection beginning to grow. His own was already throbbing and hurting, the desire of four years threatening to overtake him. However, he had a well-deserved reputation for being a sensitive lover, for knowing how to read his bedmate, and every pore in him was screaming at him to take this slowly. There would be plenty of time for faster later, many more opportunities while he was teaching and learning Illya.
Illya broke the kiss, sucking in a large gulp of air and once more lowering his head to Napoleon's shoulder, where it rested while Illya tried to control his breathing. His arms were still around Napoleon's neck, and now felt like lead weights where they rested. Napoleon let his own hand fall from the soft hair and slid his arms around the trembling body, supporting his partner as he always did. Illya's body quivered in Napoleon's arms, but he made no attempt to escape.
Eventually the short breaths calmed and Illya lifted his head. The sapphires had nearly vanished to be replaced by swollen ebony ringed with the merest hint of midnight blue. The pale cheeks were flushed, the full lips engorged and strawberry-red, and Illya's hair was disheveled. "Pochemu?" Napoleon borrowed the Russian's trademark and lifted an eyebrow. Illya shook his head, the golden mane temporarily obscuring his face. "Why?" he asked in English, his accent intense. Still Napoleon waited. He wanted to be certain he was answering the correct question. "Why did you kiss me?" Illya finally managed.
"Because, my dearest Illyusha, I have been waiting four years to do so, and I couldn't wait any longer."
"Four years?" Illya echoed, his mouth falling open. Napoleon groaned to himself as his erection pushed harder against the cotton of his shorts and released a burst of pre-ejaculate to wet even further the already damp material. "But that is—"
"As long as we've been partnered, yes." Napoleon gave up trying to fight his amusement and just smiled down at Illya.
"But I did not… Why did you not… That is… I mean…" Illya gave up and stared helplessly up at Napoleon, who was thoroughly pleased at his partner's loss of coherence. An Illya lost for words was a rare Illya indeed and a sight to behold.
"If you're trying to ask why I didn't say anything or give you any indication, well, partner mine, I did. I have been doing so from the moment we met. You didn't respond, so I assumed that you weren't interested in me in that way. Contrary to what you may have heard, I have never forced myself on anyone in my life."
"Why did you not just say something direct?"
"I couldn't, Illya. I'm your partner and your closest friend, but I'm also your superior. I didn't want it to be misconstrued and for you to take it as an order. Plus, I didn't know whether you liked men or not. I knew you didn't appear to like, or at least bother about, women. I knew that they if not scared you, then made you uncomfortable. I've directed their attention to myself too often not to know. But that doesn't mean that a man is gay. So I hinted. It was the only thing I could do. And waited. And waited. And went on waiting. Besides as much as I wanted you, I wasn't about to screw up our friendship and partnership for what might end up, if things didn't go well, being only a night or two of passion."
"I had no idea," Illya finally whispered, a deeper color touching his cheeks. It was clearly embarrassment now as well as desire. Napoleon gathered him closer, he did not want Illya to feel awkward.
"I finally worked that out," Napoleon said gently.
"I am not very… That is to say… There have not been many… In fact…" Suddenly his head came up sharply and a flash of the assured Illya Kuryakin appeared. "Do fumblings behind bike sheds and in a punt at Cambridge count?"
"Is that really it?" Napoleon asked, awed. He moved back just a little and looked down at Illya, who now seemed more relaxed.
Illya shrugged. "Just about. Well a friend did once…" He waved his hand down in the direction of his groin. "But we were both still dressed, and I was far too worried about someone catching us to actually enjoy it."
"And yet you say you're gay?" Napoleon asked, still determined not to force matters.
"Yes, I am definitely gay, Napasha. I know how I feel. I know what I am. Women hold no romantic or sexual interest for me. During several of our affairs I have found it necessary, apposite, or advisable to kiss various women. Each one has left me at best unmoved, and at worse disgusted. Do not worry, my friend. If you want me I am yours. I have been yours for the taking since the day we met. But you are not gay. All of those women could not have been a cover."
Napoleon shook his head. "No. They weren't and I'm not. I'm bisexual. I like men and women."
"I have never seen you with a man."
"No. I haven't been with one since I met you. I like sex to be honest and free. Going to bed with any other man would have been unfair, to both myself and the man I was with, and also in a weird way to you." Illya blinked, clearly not completely understanding, but the way his eyes softened and his lips twitched told Napoleon that his words had touched Illya.
A thought occurred to him. "Illya, I have to ask, how can you be so—" He paused and searched for the most acceptable word he could think of. "—lacking in experience, and yet you studied at one of the most sexually advanced cities in the world?" He wasn't certain his friend would answer, but the faint half smile and the way Illya settled into his arms reassured him.
"You have to remember, Napasha, that I was still very young when I went to the Sorbonne."
"Of course. I sometimes forget you're a wunderkind and completed your education so young." It still amazed the traditionally educated American that his young Russian partner had completed two degrees before most people had even left school, let alone ventured to college or university. How Illya's KGB sponsors had achieved this, at least at the Sorbonne, Napoleon wasn't certain he really wanted to know, after all whether it was a simple case of a few lies and/or a blind eye being turned, or something more sinister, really wasn't his concern.
It had been the KGB who contacted Alexander Waverly with the offer of a Russian for U.N.C.L.E. They had informed Napoleon's boss that they had an extremely intelligent, highly competent young man, who had two science degrees, had spent time in the Russian navy, and had been accepted at Cambridge University, whom they believed would suit U.N.C.L.E. At the time the Brit hadn't questioned Illya's age, why would he? He just assumed that U.N.C.L.E. was getting someone in his mid-twenties, and as Mr. Waverly had been trying to find a way to get a Russian into U.N.C.L.E. for some time, he unhesitatingly offered Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin a place at U.N.C.L.E.'s Survival School in 1956. When the then seventeen-year-old, who looked barely fourteen, turned up, everyone had been shocked, and it had taken Alexander Waverly a lot of fast and intense talking in order to keep the young man at the School.
When Illya graduated with scores in just about everything that outranked even Napoleon's own, he was invited to stay on and teach explosives for a month. After that U.N.C.L.E., unwilling to let such an ‘unruly child' — as they called the young Russian whiz-kid — loose on the unsuspecting world of espionage, packed him off to Cambridge. There they insisted he stay for the three years most people needed to complete their doctorate, while allowing him to also carry out experiments and other scientific work for his new employees.
After which he spent some time in other U.N.C.L.E. offices, including London, before, in the early part of 1963, Alexander Waverly ordered his return to the United States and the New York office. At that time Illya had been all of twenty-four and still looked like a teenager.
Illya blushed as he always did when compliments were paid to him. "Also, my friend, I had come from sixteen years in a country where homosexuality was a crime punishable by death or at least public humiliation and life imprisonment with, to borrow a British term, hard labor. Where every move you made was watched and recorded. Where people feared the knock on the door. Where the only real way for an orphan to survive and get on was to accept the regime and allow the KGB to take care of him. I was simply too afraid to indulge in my desires. In fact those wishes had been sublimated so deeply by fear that at that time I do not think I had any sexual needs. Apart from any qualms I had, I was also too young." Now was not the time to tell Illya that sixteen wasn't too young to enjoy a sex life.
"Again, I was still much younger than my fellow PhD students. Plus at that time homosexuality was considered a crime in Britain. Oh, it was not punishable by death or the kind of public humiliation that a Russian would experience. However, for someone who had grown up under the kind of regime that I had, well, it just was not a viable option."
"And since coming to America?"
Again Illya shrugged. "A Russian in America at the height of the Cold War? Already under suspicion, hated by many, tolerated by others — why draw attention to myself in any other way? No, it was simpler to sublimate any needs or wants I might have in my work. And your friendship supplied everything I could want or need and, with the exception of sex, you even provided physical affection."
Still Napoleon, for whom sex was if not essential then a vital and enjoyable part of his life, found it difficult to believe that Illya could have reached twenty-eight and still be so chaste. "But surely there are and were homosexuals in Russia? Laws are made to be broken."
"Of course there were. Even some top ranking officials were, are, that way inclined. However by the time I was five and reading and writing in advance of most children four or five years older than myself, the KGB had noticed me. They sponsored me, they took me under their wing as you would say, and so I was watched even more closely than other Russians."
"My poor Illya." Napoleon brushed his fingers over his friend's face.
"Do not feel sorry for me, my friend. Instead why do you not put your energies into something else?" Long, blond eyelashes were batted and Illya gazed adoring up through them, his flirting more overt than Napoleon had ever seen it.
It was enough. With a swallowed growl, he wrapped his arms around the thin body, lowered his head and again claimed the mouth to which he was already addicted. This time Illya parted his lips, shyly, slowly but definitely, and Napoleon slid his tongue into the heated cavern that tasted as sweet as a spring day. Again his erection flared, and again he forced himself to control it, desperate not to end this before it had truly begun.
Once again it was Illya who broke the kiss. Once he had forced air into his needy lungs he tightened his grip around Napoleon's neck and stretched up to whisper, his breath warm and tantalizing on Napoleon's ear, "Take me to bed, Napasha."
It was the final piece that Napoleon needed. Fighting his temptation to sweep Illya up into his arms — maybe another time — he instead entwined his hand with Illya's surprisingly large one and led him into his bedroom.
Napoleon paused inside the door and let his hand hover over the light-switch. He wanted to turn it on — he desired to see Illya clearly as he made love to him — but he would bow to Illya's wishes. He turned to the other man, who was trembling imperceptibly and whose eyes were wide with a hint of apprehension, but mostly, Napoleon was pleased to note, passion. He cocked an eyebrow as he stared down at his friend, silently asking the question. In response, Illya used his free hand to click the switch on himself. The lights flickered on and bathed the room in the sensually subdued ambiance Napoleon had chosen for his bedroom. Napoleon felt Illya relax to some extent.
He tugged on the now slightly damp hand and moved toward the bed. Illya's gaze, which had been fixed on Napoleon's face, skittered away to the bed. Napoleon watched him gulp. "It is larger than I remember," the soft Russian voice ventured, and Napoleon smiled. It wouldn't be the first time he had had Illya in this bed with him. On more than one occasion before, and even after, Illya had moved into the same building as Napoleon, his partner had spent the night at Napoleon's apartment, and as they regularly and happily shared beds while on assignments, it had not occurred to either man not to do so just because they were on home territory.
"Don't worry, moya lyubov, I won't let you get lost. I promise I'll take care of you." Napoleon enfolded Illya into his arms and just held him close for a moment or two, whispering soft Russian endearments that he wasn't certain Illya heard into the sweet-smelling silky hair. He deliberately chose to use his partner's native language, hoping it would help to relax him.
"You always do," Illya said solemnly, before pulling back enough to slide his arms around Napoleon's neck and tug the taller man's head down for a long kiss.
"I've wanted this, wanted you, for so long, I almost don't know what to do with you," Napoleon confessed as they broke apart to breathe.
Illya chuckled against Napoleon's neck; the sound was warm and damp. "Well I hope you quickly work it out, dorogoy, because I certainly do not know what to do. This is your area of expertise, not mine."
The words, spoken lightly, were enough to push Napoleon's concerns away. With his simple speech, Illya had reminded Napoleon of just why they were such a perfect and successful team. Where one of them was less proficient, the other always complemented him, and neither man ever felt inadequate. He gathered Illya in for another kiss and began to slowly undress his very own Russian lover, taking his time as he uncovered each piece of beautiful and pale skin. The pale lamp light made Illya's hair shimmer and his body glow as he stood very compliantly letting Napoleon disrobe him, his eyes lowered, his face serene.
When he reached the white shorts that fitted like a second skin and were already bulging at the front, Napoleon paused and popped two fingers under Illya's chin to tilt his head up. Again he sought permission. Again it was granted. Napoleon slid the cotton down the sturdy thighs, releasing the perfectly formed erection. Pale like Illya, much paler than Napoleon himself was, it matched his friend's slender build and nestled in a mass of dark gold curls. Napoleon ran a fingertip along its length and was rewarded with a gasp and by Illya pushing against him. "You're beautiful," he whispered, wrapping his arms around the naked body.
He felt rather than saw Illya's blush. "You have seen me naked before. Many times."
"I know. I've touched you too, but never like this. Never knowing that you're mine. Never when I've been able to touch and look as I wanted to." Napoleon rocked the lithe body gently, kissing around Illya's cheek and ear, licking and nibbling, eliciting shivers and soft moans and mutters in Illya's native tongue; words that Napoleon did not understand. His knowledge of his partner's home langue consisted of several obscenities — Illya never swore in English — a few endearments, which he hadn't learned from the aloof man, and some basic words like ‘yes,' ‘no,' ‘please,' and ‘thank you.'
"Spasibo," Illya finally managed, his voice harsh and somewhat formal, as though he had almost forgotten how to speak. Napoleon smiled. Although some people, even himself if the truth be known, questioned Illya's manners, the quiet courtesy was nonetheless always there.
"You're very welcome," he replied, equally formally. "But I only speak the truth."
"Do you?" Suddenly Illya tilted his head back and looked directly into Napoleon's eyes, searching for something. Napoleon waited. "Am I ‘yours,' Napasha?" The bright sapphires grew wary and ice began to touch them. Illya's jaw tightened, and the slender body started to tense up. All at once Napoleon read the question that Illya could not voice.
Rather than pull the still man back against him, he instead slid his hands up to cup the adored face and met the cool gaze firmly, openly, honestly. "You always have been mine, Illyusha, and you always will be. This isn't just a one-off. I hope you realize that, because if that's all you want, then tell me now, while I can still stop."
The blue eyes widened, ice melting as Illya blinked hard several times. "Could you?" he whispered.
"If I had to. I told you I never force myself on anyone, Illya. But I can't have you once and then let you go. You're mine," he repeated, shaking the pale body very slightly.
"That sounds very possessive."
"Yes. It does, doesn't it? Do you mind?" Napoleon held his breath.
Illya shrugged. "As it has always been the case, albeit not quite in the same way, I cannot see why it could or would matter. Especially given that I feel exactly the same way."
Napoleon released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding, tightened his grip on Illya's face, bent and kissed the blond eyebrows followed by each eye, the absurdly long eyelashes tickling his lips; each high cheekbone; Illya's cute chin; his mouth, and finally the tip of his nose, which was remarkably cold. "I love you, Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin," he said, his formal tone returning, with just a hint of deep affection and honesty.
"And I—" Illya stood on his toes to reach Napoleon's nose, which he duly kissed. "—love you too, Napoleon Anthony Solo." This time Napoleon did sweep Illya up in his arms and deposited him on the bed. He joined him moments later, having stripped off his clothes in record time and let them lie where they fell, a hitherto unheard-of desecration.
He found Illya's lips again more by use of his sudden homing beacon than by seeing them, and as he touched them with his own they opened underneath him and invited his tongue to again plunder his lover's mouth. Never one to pass up an invitation, Napoleon did as asked and charted the inside of Illya's mouth, while his hands caressed and petted their way over the body he already knew so well. Apart from several scars, legacy of Thrush and their other enemies, Illya's skin was as smooth as silk, and the touch alone aroused Napoleon to an almost unbearable level. Still determined to give his new and last lover a special time, Napoleon again bit down on his excitement and ordered his body to calm down.
Illya's hands began to move over Napoleon's body, his touch tentative, yet not unknowledgeable, moving over Napoleon's back and shoulders as they had done many times before when the Russian had delivered one of his massages. The familiar yet new strokes again pushed Napoleon close to his limits and, breaking the kiss, he caught Illya's hands to still them. "Don't," he breathed.
Ebony ringed jewels blinked though a fog and Illya paled. "Do you not like it? Am I doing it incorrectly? I warned you—" Napoleon stopped his words in the best possible way.
"I adore it, sweetheart," he said, when they finally broke for air. "Just like I adore you. I like it too much. I want to make love to you first. I want to show you what it's like to share this with someone who cares about you. I want to teach you how to relax and enjoy something so natural it's been going on since the dawn of time, without having to watch over your shoulder and feel guilty. I want you to know what it's like with someone you trust. You do trust me, don't you?"
Illya blinked and said, his tone husky but also somewhat amused, "Only with my life, Napasha, moya lyubov. Only with my life."
"Ah, but what about with your body, your heart, and your soul?" Napoleon nipped the end of Illya's cold nose.
"You have had them in one form or another for four years and they, like myself, are still in one piece — mostly. Go on then, do your worst," his teasing partner said, throwing his arms out and letting his body sink into the mattress while looking up at Napoleon through his eyelashes, which he batted seductively, and his bangs.
"I plan to do my best, my own," Napoleon growled and set about doing just that.
With his lips, hands and teeth, he charted every inch of Illya's body, tasting Illya, learning his flavor firsthand, and recognizing how familiar it already was to him. After all he had lived with his friend's scent for four years, and the two senses are intertwined. Within minutes he had Illya writhing and crying out under the assault, English utterly abandoned as Illya called out in what Napoleon took to be Russian, but which could have been any of his partner's myriad of languages.
Large hands were clenched in the sheets, and the blond hair was a mess on the pillow and over the beautiful face. Napoleon kept brushing the strands back, determined to watch his lover as much as possible and gauge his enjoyment. Illya's eyes fluttered, but as he blanketed his slender but lethal partner, Napoleon sensed that even when they were open, they saw nothing. He had done what he had set out to do. He had driven Illya out of his mind with desire, had stripped all inhibitions and fears away, and now the slighter man was truly his to do with as he wished. And he wished much, but most of it could wait.
To his surprise Napoleon found that once he started to make love to Illya, his own needs and desires slipped under control much more easily. He was still highly aroused, more so than he could remember ever being simply by touching and kissing someone, but it was tempered by his deeper desire to please and satisfy his lover. He slid his lips down to Illya's neck and began to suck gently. Illya tossed his head back with a feral growl, offering Napoleon his complete vulnerability. Napoleon, unable not to, sucked the salty, moist skin into his mouth and began to nibble and suck with greater urgency. Illya's hands left the bed and closed on Napoleon's head, holding him in place, forcing him closer, deeper, encouraging him, pushing so hard that eventually the heavier man had to use that extra weight to pull back before he suffocated. He stared down at the mark he had made, the brand he had deliberately, and with Illya's full agreement, placed on his lover's neck. It would be much more noticeable the following day, especially given Illya's pale skin, but turtlenecks were as much an Illya trademark as the over-long blond hair, so it wouldn't seem strange for him to wear one.
"Napasha," Illya managed, his accent intense and erotic. "Pozhalujsta."
"Please what, sweetheart?" Napoleon teased gently, but Illya became incoherent again as Napoleon moved his hand down the sleek, damp body and touched Illya's weeping, straining erection, soothing and calming rather than giving the result Illya clearly craved. To touch wasn't enough, and after planting another kiss on the swollen, reddened lips, Napoleon slid down the bed, kissing his way down Illya's body until he reached the perfectly formed penis. He licked the tip and then with a soft movement took the head into his mouth. Illya nearly jerked them both off the bed. The taste of his lover was stronger here, but still as precious and clean as the man himself. Napoleon settled in. Suddenly, shaking hands affixed themselves in his hair.
"Nyet. Nyet. No."
"Illya?" Napoleon let his prize slip gently from his lips and glanced up, puzzled. What he had been doing was something that every man loved, dreamed of, wanted far more than he got. "What is it? Don't you like it?"
"Da. Yes. Too much. I cannot. I need you with me. Please."
And suddenly Napoleon understood. His virtually virginal partner, who had by his own admission never achieved a climax under anyone's hands while actually enjoying himself, was finding it all too intense, too different, too scary, too overwhelming. The big, luminous jewels were brimming, and Illya looked like Napoleon had never seen him before: terrified.
In seconds he was back up the bed and gathering the slight body into his arms. "Hush, Lusha, hush," he said, showering kisses on the pale, anxious face. "It's all right, beloved. It's all right. I'm here. I'm with you." For a moment or two he just held Illya, reassuring him and reestablishing the ties that had bound them together and held them as one another's captive from the day they met. Then as the skittish colt Illya had become calmed down somewhat, he moved his hand back to Illya's erection and brought his lover to a shattering climax while kissing him and holding one of Illya's hands with his free one.
Illya ejaculated, crying Napoleon's name, or rather his Russian version of the name, before dropping back onto the bed, limp and unmoving, even unbreathing. For a split second Napoleon panicked and his fingers raced for Illya's carotid artery, which was covered by a rapidly growing bruise. As they touched Illya's neck, Illya murmured and began to breath again. Napoleon felt almost weak with relief and told his own racing heart to calm down.
It was several minutes, during which Napoleon just held Illya and stroked his body, his touch gentle and soothing, before unfocussed eyes opened and blinked up at him. Illya's kiss-reddened lips parted and he tried to speak, failed, frowned and tried again. "Wow," was all he managed and to Napoleon's everlasting delight, the pale skin flushed. ‘Wow' was not a word either he or anyone else would normally associate with the well-spoken Russian.
After a few more moments, Illya spoke again. "It is true then," he said, his tone soft, his accent fierce, his eyes still blurred and so far removed from the ice and fire they often shot, that for a second Napoleon didn't recognize them. Not that the brilliant blue that could be the color of an azure sky, a ripe cornflower, midnight blue velvet, or the most expensive and beautiful sapphire, could belong to anyone other than his partner.
"What's true, my love?"
"You are very good."
Napoleon laughed. "And just where have you heard that?"
"Oh, around. Gossip."
"I would never have thought you listened to gossip." Napoleon was intrigued.
"I do not do so normally. However, people often talk in front of me about things. I sometimes wonder whether they realize I am there."
"Well you do manage your furniture or wall act quite well," Napoleon said lightly, but inside he was angry. It was far more likely that some people spoke in front of the aloof Russian with malicious intent, designed to hurt or embarrass.
"Is it always like that?" Illya offered his lips for another kiss. Napoleon obliged. His friend seemed intrigued and almost full of awe.
"Like what?" he asked, equally intrigued.
"So… So… So…"
Napoleon was enchanted and highly amused as he watched his usually articulate partner, the man who spoke more languages than anyone Napoleon knew, at a loss for words. Finally the flustered blond gave up, threw his hands up in a gesture of surrender and despair, and blushed deeply.
Napoleon took pity on him. "When two people love one another like we do, then yes, sweetheart, I believe it is always like that."
"Only believe?" A gold eyebrow was cocked.
"I've never loved anyone the way I love you, Illyusha mine. And have never been in love like I am with you. So yes, I am afraid that I can only go by hearsay."
"Oh." Illya tried to look and sound nonchalant and failed. Instead he looked like he did after he had just blown something up, or had successfully committed a little old fashioned B&E. Napoleon had to kiss him again. Illya responded with vast enthusiasm and deep affection.
"What about you?" he asked, when once again they remembered that even top spies had to breathe. "What can I do for you?" And then to Napoleon's shock, Illya wriggled and spread his legs, gazing up lovingly through his lashes, which he then batted slowly. There was no mistaking his offer.
It was Napoleon, now, who found himself speechless. Eventually, some words found their way through the fog. "No," he said, shaking his head. "No," he added more firmly, dragging his gaze away from the wantonly parted thighs. As in just about everything Illya did, it seemed as though his versatile Russian was a fast learner in the art of seduction.
Illya's mouth fell open and his eyes widened. "No?" he repeated, as though he had never used the word before. "No? You do not want me?" The wall that Napoleon had carefully spent four years demolishing started to re-erect itself.
Napoleon gathered the taut body into his embrace and hastened to reassure. "No. That is, yes. That is… Oh, hell. Yes, Lusha, of course I want you, desperately. But not now. Not this time."
"Because, sweetheart, I'm too close. You've turned me on too much. I couldn't take the time needed to make it even bearable for you, let alone good."
"I am not some fragile little flower," Illya argued. "I can take a little pain." Again he fluttered his eyelashes and pushed his bottom lip out.
"I know you're not some fragile little flower," Napoleon said patiently and then a thought flashed through his mind, and he couldn't hide the smile it brought to his lips. A glance down at his previously pouting partner revealed that their much-talked-about telepathy had once again appeared, as Illya too was smiling in memory of Napoleon's ‘little flower' comment. Heaven only knows what the U.N.C.L.E. employees hosing Illya down at that moment had thought of the comment, in fact of the entire conversation.
"Trust me, partner mine," Napoleon said gently after another moment, deliberately bringing their working relationship into the bed.
Illya rolled his eyes and sighed. "Very well. So what do you want?"
"Just touch me. It'll be enough." And it would. Now that he had pleased and sated Illya, Napoleon's own desire had cranked up and he badly needed release. A firm, but not firm enough, grip surrounded him. "Harder," Napoleon urged. "Like you'd touch yourself." Then a thought occurred to him. "You do…" He waved his hand. "Don't you?" Of course Illya did. All men did. Didn't they?
Illya shrugged and glanced away, but said nothing. Napoleon decided not to press matters. Instead he brought his own hand down and wrapped it around Illya's, tightening the grip to his satisfaction. Then he began to move down and up along the engorged shaft, letting Illya feel the rhythm. After a moment or two it was clear that Illya had it — he was a fast learner — and Napoleon let his own hand slip away and fall onto the bed, where Illya immediately captured it. Napoleon closed his eyes, tossed his head back, and gave himself over to the sensation he had dreamed of for four years. Seconds later he felt the orgasm build up and then, crying Illya's name, he ejaculated.
It was several seconds before he opened his eyes to find Illya bending over him, the self-satisfied look once more on his face. Then, to Napoleon's amazement, his lover brought his hand from Napoleon's still half-hard penis to his mouth. As Napoleon watched in stunned silence, Illya's pink tongue flicked out and licked at the tips of his long fingers. With a groan the heavier man rolled his lighter partner over and once more plundered the inviting mouth, drinking in Illya's taste together with his own flavor. The latter on Illya's lips sent another throb to his groin and before he knew what was happening he felt himself ejaculate again.
Another period of nothing but the beauty of the occasion, the sheer pleasure of being, passed before Napoleon became aware of his surrounding again. Lying in his bed, his new and forever lover in his arms, Napoleon felt at peace with the world and himself in a way he had never imagined. He enjoyed living life on the edge and had always done so, never really feeling the need to have a home, nor wanting one. Nonetheless now in one person he had found his home and his future, together with a security that he hadn't even realized he'd been missing.
"So," he said, lazily tracing a pattern on Illya's firm, virtually smooth chest. "Did these men say anything else?"
"You are worse than a terrier at times, Pasha, and you tell me that I am persistent."
"I must have learned it from you then, my stubborn friend. Well?"
Illya sighed and rolled his eyes. "Very well, if you must know the conversation began with them almost taking bets as to whether or not we were sleeping together."
"Really?" Napoleon pushed himself up so that he could look down at Illya. "People think that?"
Illya looked curious. "You did not know?"
Napoleon shook his head. "That particular piece of gossip must have passed me by. I take it you've heard it before?" Illya nodded. "Often?"
"Not really. But I have been aware of it."
"Has anyone ever said anything to you directly?" If he or she had, that was someone else Napoleon would find a way to deal with. To his delight Illya blushed. "Well?" he pushed.
"Only once. It was several months after we had been partnered. You had taken me to Penny's party, and as usual I was left alone with the bottle of vodka you very thoughtfully provided for me, while you were surrounded by a gaggle of adoring women. One young lady, who before you ask will remain nameless, and who was, if I recall, more than a little tipsy, suggested that we ‘compare notes on what loving and losing Mr. Solo was like.' She went on to say that I at least got to work with you every day, and then assured me that our secret was safe with her and half of U.N.C.L.E."
"Your recall never ceases to amaze me, Illyusha. It shouldn't by now, but it still does. So what did you say?" Napoleon was torn between fascination and annoyance that anyone should cause even a hint of discomfort to Illya.
"I believe the term ‘lost for words' sums my reaction up perfectly. And then you compounded things by appearing and making a rather suggestive comment, which flummoxed me even further, and when I did find my voice again I seemed unable to speak English, must to your amusement."
Suddenly a vision was coming back to Napoleon. "That was the evening you borrowed my blue silk tie. The one that matched your eyes."
"Yes, and spilled vodka all down it, which necessitated me spending a considerable amount of my following week's salary replacing it for you."
"Which I told you was unnecessary." Illya just shrugged, and Napoleon bent to kiss the end of his nose; it was still cold.
The scene replayed itself before his eyes. Illya, usually graceful and catlike on his feet thanks no doubt to his gymnastic training, spilling vodka, nearly knocking over a lamp, and a table full of bottles, and all but yelping when Napoleon touched him.
At the time Napoleon had been bemused by his usually cool, calm and unruffled partner's sudden klutziness, now he felt saddened and a little irritated that he hadn't realized the cause of the abnormal behavior. They had wasted so much time. Only there was little point in thinking like that, his pragmatic friend would have told him. Regret is pointless. The past is the past and it cannot be undone. The only thing people can affect is the now and the potential future. And for a pessimist, as Illya was, Napoleon doubted the future ever really featured in his thoughts for long. Well he would change that. Illya would have a future. They would have a future. Together.
He lowered his head again and began to nuzzle the relatively smooth skin of Illya's neck and chin. He sucked gently, enjoying the taste of salt and the remains of the vanilla-and-forest-scented cologne, and the unique Illya Kuryakin fragrance that he knew he would recognize even if blindfolded. Illya groaned and moved under the assault, tipping his head back further, and again offering his neck to Napoleon to mark should he choose to do so. Napoleon chose to do so.
As he opened his eyes, Illya's flushed skin and dark eyes whipped him back into the past, and the Illya of the night of Penny's party once more hovered before his eyes.
The sapphire blue eyes had been painfully wide, the pupils huge and the usually pale face slightly flushed and damp. Illya's fine, beautiful blond hair was mussed, and if Napoleon hadn't know Illya's capacity for alcohol, he would have suspected that Illya was inebriated. However, a glance at the bottle of vodka he had bought showed him the Russian had drunk less than a third, and even though he had found Illya with a glass in his hand earlier in his apartment, the combination was nothing compared to what he knew Illya could consume and still fire his gun with deadly accuracy.
After another prolonged, but enjoyable interlude, during which Napoleon found himself learning as well as teaching about passion, he asked, "Are you going to tell me who the men were?" Illya rolled his eyes. "Come on, partner mine, you know I'll find out in the end. And don't try telling me that you didn't recognize their voices. I know how tuned in your ear is for that kind of thing."
Illya sighed. "Very well. But please promise me that you will not make their lives too uncomfortable."
"Illya," Napoleon growled.
His lover sighed exaggeratedly again and told him.
After a combined shower that pushed even Napoleon's hot water tank to its
limits, Napoleon fed his lover, as a hungry Illya was a grumpy Illya, initiated him into the joys of slow dancing, and then took him back to bed again. He was mildly surprised that Illya, who often argued simply for the sake of it, raised no objections. He decided that he rather liked, and could quite get quite used to, a compliant partner, and wondered how long it would last.
After arranging Illya in his arms to both men's satisfaction, Napoleon fell asleep, a smile on his face, a sense of fulfillment in his heart.
When they awoke the following day, he was more than a little surprised, but delighted, to find that Illya was still in his arms.
TWO WEEKS LATER
"Here, have you two heard the news?"
"Don't tell me there have been budget cut-backs again. I had to fly coach class last time."
"No, it's nothing like that."
"Well what then?"
"Kuryakin's moving in with Solo."
The stunned silence went on for several seconds. "You're kidding, right?"
"Wrong. I got it first-hand from Dawn who works in Personnel. They were down there earlier today filling out the necessary forms to keep U.N.C.L.E happy about who lives where, nominating next-of-kin, etcetera."
"Then that must mean…"
"It won't last."
"There's more. Solo's put a ring on Kuryakin's finger."
"How do you know? Kuryakin's worn one on and off for years. I've often wondered why. He must just be going through one of his wearing it phases."
"No, this one is new and wider. Dawn saw it herself — well she couldn't help it, apparently he kept admiring it. So she commented on it."
"What did our Ice Prince say?"
"He didn't say anything. He blushed and glanced up at Solo and hastily changed the subject. Solo apparently just grinned and winked at his partner."
"So it's serious?"
"Seems to be."
"What about the field agents not marrying or even forming permanent relationships until they're forty rule? Waverley won't be happy when he finds out."
"You can bet your life he already knows. They wouldn't have risked it without his approval. And they've pushed and broken just about all the rules over the years anyway. So what's one more?"
"Do you reckon the Old Man will let them stay partnered?"
"God, I hope so. If not that means that Kuryakin will be on the loose, and knowing my luck I'll end up with him."
"That's totally unfair. He's a first-class agent, better than you and me any day. I for one would consider myself damned fortunate to get the chance to work with him."
"I didn't mean it that way. I just meant—"
"Maybe you should keep quiet about what you ‘just meant.' Anyway, they'll stay partnered. If they weren't, Solo would be forever dashing off to rescue Kuryakin from his latest capture or vice versa, so it's in Waverly's interests to keep them together."
"Tell me, do we bend or break all the rules, Illya? Do you think that's why Mr. Waverly offered no objections to you moving in with me?"
Illya's reply, if indeed he had intended to make one, vanished beneath the sounds of three chairs being pushed backward, and three men struggling to their feet, along with their shocked gasps. Horrified looks greeted U.N.C.L.E.'s top pairing as they moved from the table they had been occupying, behind the potted plant, and halted by the next table.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. Enjoying your coffee, I trust?" Napoleon smiled, but he knew that it, like his voice, which at surface level was pleasant, would leave no one who had experienced any dealings with the Head of Section Two in any doubt as to his real feelings.
One of them, William Morton, finally stopped impersonating a goldfish and spoke, his voice strangled. "Good afternoon, Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin." His eyes were riveted somewhere above Napoleon's left shoulder. His companions, David Walters and James Ferris, finally managed to add their greeting. Napoleon didn't need to look at his partner — in fact he didn't dare look at him — to know that Illya was highly amused, and yet, he also knew that he alone would be able to read that information in the apparently calm, aloof Russian.
After a second or two, he did turn to Illya. "You know, Illya, I was wondering whether we should send these gentlemen on a refresher course for a few weeks." The sapphires flashed with mirth. Again only Napoleon would have noticed it. "After all, being unaware of a potential enemy could be deadly — literally. In fact, we could combine it with your visit to Survival School as a temporary instructor. What do you think?"
Illya smiled his half smile and looked up at his partner through his lashes and bangs; he still hadn't visited the barber. The look smoldered and promised, and it took all Napoleon's will-power not to grab his lover and kiss him there and then. Now he didn't dare look directly at the three men, because their horrified gasps, hastily turned into coughs, and the way the color had drained from their faces (a good agent learns all about looking at people without looking at them) as he said the words would have threatened the hold he had on his mirth. Actually, not that he would ever tell Illya, but game or not, he was already making plans to ensure that Messrs. Morton, Walters and Ferris were aware that any kind of insult to Illya was not permitted.
"Oh, I don't know, Napoleon," Illya replied, apparently having given the matter some serious consideration. "After all maybe we should be thanking them instead of punishing them. If it had not been for them, then maybe we…" He trailed off and blushed very prettily — one day Napoleon would have to find out just how his friend seemed to be able to blush at will. Then he offered another flirtatious look through his eyelashes that made Napoleon glad he had buttoned his suit jacket up when he had stood up, and then lowered his gaze to the floor.
"Very well, partner mine. I'll bow to your superior knowledge — on this occasion," Napoleon said. Then without further comment, he turned Illya around and guided him out of the commissary, one hand placed deliberately in the small of Illya's back.
The top team didn't need eyes in the backs of their heads to know they left behind them stunned and startled expressions. At the door, Illya paused, caught Napoleon's arm, moved closer and stretched up to whisper something in his ear. Napoleon had to bite his lip to prevent himself from grabbing his friend and ravishing him in the hallway. They were going to have to be careful until they finally grew accustomed to one another — not that Napoleon thought for one moment that Illya would stop turning him on with nothing more than a look. After all, the younger man had been doing it for four years; why should the fact that they were now sleeping together change things? He employed some of the calming tactics he had become very adept at during the last few years. His lips swept upwards as he listened to the soft, accented voice, and nodded once.
Illya turned on his heel and trotted back to where the three men still stood open-mouthed and watching the senior agents. Wanting to see things first-hand, and also unwilling to let Illya out of close proximity, Napoleon followed.
Illya turned his frozen gaze, which nonetheless to Napoleon's knowledgeable eyes, sparked imperceptibly. "Mr. Walters, may I suggest that in future you only consider placing ‘good money' bets on things of which you are certain of the outcome. Good day, gentlemen." He turned, brushed quite deliberately past Napoleon, and was across the room on swift moving legs before any of the three junior field agents, who had turned the color of beetroot, could say a word.
Napoleon offered a rebuking, yet not totally unfriendly smile, and followed Illya, wondering just how quickly he could persuade his partner to get through the paperwork, thus enabling them to leave for the day.
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