Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Don't make money off 'em. If pressed, I'd admit they belong to somebody else though I'm not sure who, but really that's slavery. They should be free! Rated NC-17 for m/m smut. I thought I had started this for a challenge but I can't find any that make sense now, so maybe I didn't.
Soundtrack: Pepe & Angel Romero: Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, Fantasia para un gentilhombre, Concierto Madrigal. Chet Baker: Deep in a Dream (cd). Plus miscellaneous Billie Holliday and Nat King Cole songs I forgot to make note of.
Thanks to my betae, who have opted to remain nameless, for their amazing assistance.
Without them this story would be full of comma-splices, lacking semi-colons,
full of boring episode recaps, and just not very well-polished in general. Some
suggestions I didn't take, so assume anything that isn't up to par is my own
It was a little bit amusing, Illya thought, looking down at the man on the stone floor at his feet, that despite being one of the few agents in Europe not looking for UNCLE's missing hotshot, he appeared to be the one who had found him. Now, granted, Illya didn't have the photo to compare the fellow with, but his memory was excellent, and this particular face was . . . distinctive. Despite some fairly extensive bruising and swelling, the man-in-the-moon profile, cleft chin, and oddly discontented mouth were quite recognizable.
He crouched down, put a hand on the American's shoulder and shook him. "Hey."
The man didn't stir, his body moving like a rag doll under Illya's touch. He thumbed back an eyelid and swore softly under his breath. Clearly he couldn't count on the man assisting in his own rescue. With a sigh he fished his communicator out of the cargo pocket of his military-style trousers, connected it to the base of the bare bulb that hung from the ceiling, and turned it on. "Open Channel L."
"Channel L Open."
Illya recognized the voice on the other end of the call. Denis March. Not a favorite. "Kuryakin here. I've found your missing American and will bring him in as soon as I've finished what I came here to do."
There was a moment of silence. "You mean Solo?"
Right. That was it. At the briefing he'd been so busy being appalled that any parent would saddle a child with such a ludicrous first name that the last name hadn't stuck. "Yes. Solo."
"Where are you?" March asked, sounding incredulous. "You're supposed to be in . . ." There was a pause, some rustling, clearly he was checking the assignment logs. "Portugal."
"I'm right where I'm supposed to be. I found Solo in the dungeon."
"Yes, the dungeon." Illya thought it was a trifle over the top himself, but this was THRUSH they were talking about, after all.
"Where did you find a dungeon?"
"In the castle, of course."
Illya sighed. "The one THRUSH is apparently planning to use as a conference facility. The one in which I am planting surveillance devices," he said irritably, annoyed that he was being questioned by March as if heíd done something wrong. "Speaking of which, I have more of said devices to place, so if you would kindly just tell Mr. Beldon I found our missing agent I would appreciate it. Kuryakin out."
He unhooked the communicator and stowed it away, wishing the UNCLE engineers would figure out a less awkward means of communication. Perhaps something with its own power supply. Sometimes there simply wasnít any electricity available when you needed to contact Headquarters. And usually those were the times when you most needed the back-up you couldn't request.
Illya sighed, leaned down, and managed to get Solo into a sitting position against the wall. From there, he was able to put a shoulder in his midsection and lift him into a fireman's carry. He 'oofed' a little as he hefted the other man. Solo was more solid than he looked, and his weight, especially combined with the pack Illya already carried, was not inconsiderable. He staggered down the hallway with his burden, looking for the under-stairs cupboard he'd spotted while reconnoitering.
Finding it, he was in the process of wedging the other agent into the small space when he heard footsteps overhead. By the sound of it, there were two large people coming down the stairs. Swearing under his breath, he plastered himself on top of the American and managed to pull the small door closed just as the footsteps left the stairs and moved past their hiding place.
"Why do we have to keep patrolling?" a man complained. "We're out in the middle of nowhere, no one is going to break in, and the American is in no shape to break out." The words were in Portuguese, not surprising. THRUSH tended to hire locals for things like thug duty.
"It's our job. They said to keep watch, so we keep watch. Otherwise, João, we don't get paid."
"I wish I hadn't taken this job," the first man, João, said.
"Shut up, or they might oblige you. And they have no retirement plan."
The voices receded as they moved away from the staircase, fortunately headed in the opposite direction from the cell Illya had just emptied. Illya let out the breath heíd been holding and tried to shift Solo so that they could both fit more easily in the cramped space. As he did, his elbow knocked against the inner wall, making a hollow sound, and he winced, hoping the guards had been too far away to hear it. He pushed at Soloís shoulder, tugged at his knees, and suddenly stopped as his brain made connections between the sound, and basic physics.
If sound traveled like that, there was open space on the other side of the wall. And the wall was clearly not very thick, or it wouldnít have flexed to pressure like it had. Knowing it wouldn't take long before the guards discovered Solo missing and that they'd need a new bolt-hole quickly, he propped himself up on one elbow and began to run his fingers along the wall, searching for a join. The wood was rough, leaving splinters in his fingertips, but finally he found a spot where two boards joined irregularly. Making a mental note of the angle of his hand and arm at that spot, he squirmed around, trying to reach the screwdriver in his knapsack.
"You know," a warm, mellow-sounding voice said into the darkness, "...usually I make an effort to be introduced to someone before we get this friendly."
Illya had gone still at the first word, startled, but relaxed as he realized it was just Solo, back amongst the living apparently. He was a little surprised by how calm Solo seemed, and even more surprised that a macho American would make a joke like that. "Shhhh," he hissed. "Guards."
Solo nodded, at least it felt like a nod, and Illya kept trying for the screwdriver, but even with his flexibility his arm just didn't want to bend quite that way.
After a moment, Solo lifted his head and put his lips nearly against Illya's ear. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to reach my screwdriver."
"Allow me." A pair of arms came up around him, hands patted around until they found the knapsack, and after a bit of rummaging, a soft sound of satisfaction came as a puff of warm breath against his ear. A moment later fingers trailed down his arm, found his hand, and the heavy, fluted handle of a screwdriver was pressed into his palm. "There you are, Doctor. You can operate now."
For a moment Illya wondered how the hell Solo knew he had a doctorate, but then he realized it was just another joke. He wasn't used to working with agents who knew what a sense of humor was. "Thank you, nurse." He felt Solo chuckle silently as he shifted to a better angle, and started to wedge the screwdriver blade between the boards. It took some work, but he finally managed to pry the plywood sheet back enough to get a grip on it, and some pulling loosened it enough that he thought he could get a look at what was behind it, if he risked using a light. "Can you get the torch out of my knapsack as well?"
"Torch? You wouldn't have a pitchfork in there too, would you?"
"That's flashlight to you, Amerikanski, and no. Would that I did. It would make a better prybar than this screwdriver."
"Amerikanski?" Solo queried, hands busy in the pack again.
"Illya Kuryakin, at your service," Illya offered.
There was a short silence. "Ah. I've heard of you."
"Then we are even, Mr. Solo. The torch?"
More rummaging, and then Solo was sliding the solid, tubular shape of his torch into his hand. "Here you are, slave driver." Solo's voice sounded strained, despite the lightness of the comment.
Illya shielded the lens with his hand and thumbed the switch on. A vague pinkish glow filtered through his fingers and he gradually shifted them, letting more light through slowly so as not to shock their vision. When the lens was fully uncovered, he let himself look into Solo's face. In the dim light Solo's eyes were the color of strong coffee, his face pale where it wasn't colorfully bruised. The tension that had sounded in his voice was also evident in his expression, which was tight with stress and pain.
When Solo realized Illya was looking at him, he gave a wry smile that was more of a grimace. "So, anything worth exploring back there?"
Recalled to his duty, Illya aimed the torch into the dark hole, and saw the light sweep dimly across a
wide, vaulted chamber. "Oh, yes. Definitely." He put the torch down and wrestled with the board, yanking it back and forth until it came free. He slid it out of the way, and rolled off Solo and into the newly revealed room. Solo whimpered softly when Illya moved, and Illya stared at him.
"Ribs?" he asked, suddenly understanding.
Solo nodded. "Yeah."
"You didn't say anything," Illya said, feeling a little guilty.
"It wasn't like you could help it."
"True." The guilt vanished, and Illya rolled to his feet, looking around. The room was quite spacious; it would easily hold twenty people, or more if they didn't mind being close. There were even a few furnishings. A table, some chairs, something that looked like a wardrobe, and three large trunks. The muffled sound of shouting caught his attention and he crouched down again. "Come on, they've figured out you're gone and they'll start searching."
Solo nodded, painfully pushed himself to his hands and knees, and crawled into the room. Once he was inside, Illya pulled the plywood back across the gap and wired it in place with a few twists from the coil he carried in the knapsack, then got to his feet again, brushing the dust off his hands.
"What if they know about this room?" Solo asked.
Illya looked at him, propped against the wall, his color, if possible, even worse than before, and was surprised that the man was able to think so practically in the shape he was in. In answer, he gestured with the flashlight "There are no marks in the dust save those we've put there. It's clear that no one's been in this room in years."
He turned slowly, playing the flashlight around the room, discovering a woodstove backed into the embrace of an old stone hearth, the newer metal chimney venting up the stone flue. What looked to be about a half-cord of wood was stacked neatly in a fuel box built into the wall beside the original fireplace. The wood would be overly dry for the stove, but if he could find water he could damp it a little to offset that. Sconces around the room held dust-covered candles, and a pair of kerosene lanterns hung on iron swivel hooks from the two large support columns "In fact, I'd say it's been about twenty years since anyone used this room."
Solo glanced around curiously. "Why do you say that?"
"I suspect it was created as a refuge during the war. Once the war was over, there was no need for the room and it was eventually forgotten about."
Solo nodded. "Makes sense." He sighed and leaned his head back against the wall, and Illya saw a slight tremor go through him.
"Are you all right?"
Solo nodded, but another tremor shook him. "Just a little chilly, that's all."
"Here, I'm fine, you take this." Hoping the other agent wasn't going into shock, Illya quickly dropped his knapsack and stripped off his jacket, kneeling to urge Solo forward so he could slide it behind him, then helping him thread his arms through the sleeves. Fortunately it was the blousy sort of jacket that could fit more than one size. "Better?" Illya asked, after zipping it closed.
Solo nodded, then looked at the pack. "You wouldn't happen to have anything to eat in there would you?"
Illya had to fight the survival instinct that told him to lie, and instead he nodded. "Three chocolate bars, some beef jerky, and some hardtack. Oh, and a canteen of water and a flask of whiskey. Medicinal, of course."
"What a coincidence, seeing as how I am in need of medicating," Solo said, giving the bag a longing look.
Illya rummaged to find the flask, and then held it out. "Here, take what you need."
Solo accepted the flask and lifted it, putting back a healthy swallow and then sucking in a breath that almost turned into a cough. A second sip seemed to stave that off, though, and he relaxed after a moment. "Thanks. That might just take the edge off."
"You're welcome." Deciding it would be wise to conserve the torch's batteries, Illya got up and used one of the waterproof matches from the little metal canister on his belt to light several of the candles.
'You have excellent taste in liquor, Mr. Kuryakin." Solo took another sip. "This is an Islay single malt, unless I'm very much mistaken."
"You're correct. Lagavulin, actually. I'm going to have a better look around."
Solo nodded, watching him. "Rumor has it that you should have Gerald Strothers' job."
"Which? That it's a rumor, or that you should have his job?"
"Both," Illya said, opening the door to the wardrobe. One side had built-in shelves, the top shelf hosted a wine rack in which rested a half-dozen bottles, their waxed seals intact. The next held two dozen thick pillar candles similar to those in the sconces, most of the others holding canned goods, both commercial and home-made. A couple of the jars had burst, but the spilled contents had long since dried so there was no unpleasant odor. The lids on the other jars were flat and sound-looking. The cans, save for two that were swollen with spoilage, also looked in amazingly good shape for being twenty years old.
Solo chuckled. "I admire honesty in a man. What've you found?"
"Well, we won't starve, and we could get nicely pissed, provided the wine hasn't turned." Illya pulled a bottle from the wine rack and displayed it. "This one's a Dão, but I think there are others. Considering where we are, probably Vinho Verdes or Douros. Whoever stocked the shelter is to be commended."
"Speaking of where we are. . . where exactly would that be?"
Illya turned, startled. "You don't know?"
Solo shook his head. "I remember going to bed in Paris, and waking up in a dirty cell getting the tar beat out of me."
Illya nodded. "Which is why everyone is looking for you in France. However, we're in northern Portugal, not far from a little village called Monção. THRUSH has leased an old castle here to use for their upcoming summit. I'm sure that's why you were brought here. A . . . trophy of sorts."
Solo lifted a hand to his throat. "I must say I prefer my head attached rather than stuffed and mounted. What made you look for me here?"
"I didn't. I was in Porto on another assignment, and someone. . . happened to mention the summit, and thought I ought to plant a few bugs before things got going."
Solo's lips quirked; clearly he'd caught Illya's implication that the mention might not have been entirely voluntary. "So I was just a bonus."
Illya lifted an eyebrow. "Of sorts."
Solo frowned suddenly. "Wait a minute, wasn't Portugal neutral during the war? Why would someone need a bolt-hole like this in a neutral country?"
"Officially they were neutral. Unofficially, they laundered money for the Axis and just to show how even-handed they were, charged rent to the Allies for bases. Their secret police were quite efficient, and more than one of their leaders both during and after there war were quite . . . paranoid, which makes it possible the room was used more recently, I suppose, but in any case it's clearly been abandoned for years."
Turning his back on the cupboard, Illya moved to the largest of the trunks and tested the catch. It opened easily, if dustily, and he rubbed his itchy nose on his sleeve as he pawed in the contents. As he'd hoped, the top layer was a woolen blanket, but the featherbed that was folded under it was an unexpected find. The scent of cedar from the chest walls was mixed with lavender and rosemary drifting faintly from the long-dried sprigs that had been tucked in with the fabric by some careful housekeeper. The combination was pleasant. Much better than dust.
He started to lift the featherbed out, planning to lay it out for Solo, and then stopped, an inner voice that sounded disconcertingly like his mother's scolding him for even thinking about putting the carefully stored bed on a floor that had nearly a centimeter of dust on it. He pushed the bed back into the trunk and went back to the cupboard, recalling that a broom had occupied part of the narrow, unshelved portion. As he retrieved the broom he realized that the collection of finished wooden posts wound with ropes that that leaned against the broom was the disassembled frame for the bed.
Whoever had stocked the room had thought of everything. He wondered if they had ever had to use the room, and then thinking about how everything was still in place all these years later, he wondered if they'd needed to, but not been able to get to it in time.
He found a good spot near the woodstove and began to sweep, carefully so as not to simply stir up the dust, but rather moving it to a different spot, further away.
"Felt like doing a little housework?" Solo queried, and then coughed, followed by a bitten-off moan and a grimly set jaw.
"Well, I'd have you do it, but I think you have seniority and I don't want to get in trouble with the boss."
That brought a wan smile to the other agent's face. "Speaking of the boss, why don't you have Gerald Strothers' job?"
"Frankly, as long as Harry Beldon heads UNCLE Europe, I wouldn't have the job."
Solo's gaze sharpened and traveled down his body, then back up in blatant assessment. "Did he. . . ah. . . try something?"
Illya snorted, wondering just how much Solo had heard about Beldon. And about himself. "Harry 'tries something,' as you so circuitously put it, with everyone he meets. Old, young, male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral. But that doesn't disturb me, he's an egalitarian lecher, he doesn't discriminate. I'd be more offended if he hadn't tried something. I simply think he's past his prime. It has nothing to do with his age, he's just gotten lazy and careless. In our line of work a lazy, careless boss can get you killed."
"Thankfully that's one thing I don't have to worry about," Solo said fervently.
"Which is why Northeast has so many applications for transfers from Europe. Everyone knows Waverly's on the ball."
"And here I thought it was just our standard of living."
Napoleon huddled down into Illya's jacket and grew quiet, dozing. Illya watched him thoughtfully for a moment, strategizing. They didn't dare try to travel. Solo couldn't outrun a kitten in his current state; he needed a day or two to rest and recuperate before they made a break for it, and so long as THRUSH didn't discover their hiding place, they had nearly the perfect place to do it. Illya returned to sweeping, though he'd decided to go ahead and set up the bed. Solo would do better off the floor.
Deciding he'd swept a large enough area for now, Illya crossed the room to put the broom away and as he did, his toe caught on something and he nearly measured his length on the floor. He pushed himself up to a crouch, looking around for what had tripped him, and saw that one of the stones had a slightly raised section. Unlike every other block of flooring, it was circular, save for a small protruding notch, which was what had tripped him. The pavers around it had been cut to fit it like a key in a lock. Opposite the notch was a set of four depressions along the edge of the circular stone, and in the center was a hole just large enough to put a finger in.
Illya stared at it for a long time, weighing his curiosity against the possibility that it might be a trap of some sort. Finally curiosity won out. After all, everything else in the room appeared to be survival oriented: why would they booby trap their own safehouse? He put his thumb in the hole, his fingers in the four depressions, and pulled. The stone canted upward easily on a hinge hidden in the raised notch, revealing a hole in the floor about thirty centimeters in diameter. The air that wafted upward from it was cool and damp.
Scrambling to his feet, he snatched the torch from where he'd left it, coming back to shine the light down the hole. About three meters down it reflected off the bottom in ripples. Water. One of the few things heíd been concerned about. The well made their refuge truly habitable. He was certain that it was the castle's original well, and this room had once been the fallback position if all else failed. He was also willing to bet that somewhere in the room he would find a vessel just the right size for the well mouth, and a rope or chain on which to lower it. Thoughtfully he replaced the well-cap and set about assembling the bed.
It took over an hour for Illya to finish putting things the way he wanted them. As heíd expected heíd found the bucket for the well in one of the other trunks, along with a washbasin and pitcher, a set of enameled steel cookware and three place settings, all better suited to a movie Western than a Portuguese castle. Hidden in the shadows of an archway heíd also discovered a long, narrow corridor that sloped upward, the elevation increase helped along by three short flights of steps.
Cautious exploration had led him to the real entrance to the room, which let into a kitchen pantry, from what he could tell looking through the slits in the hidden door. The corridor extended a little way past that, terminating in a closet-sized room which appeared to be an original garderobe, which took care of the only worry he'd had, other than water. It would be no worse than using an outhouse, and considerably better than trying to chip up pavers with a screwdriver and dig a latrine pit with a spoon. Not to mention that it was far enough away from the main room that it shouldn't contaminate the well. Still, he planned on boiling all their drinking water. You never knew.
Solo had slept through it all, and Illya thought it was about time to get him off the floor. He moved to crouch beside his fellow agent. "Mr. Solo?"
There was no response, and Illya reached to put a hand on his shoulder planning to shake him awake. Instantly he noticed that could feel the heat of Solo's body even through the jacket. He swore softly, realizing that Solo hadn't been going into shock earlier, he'd been shaking with a chill. He was running a fever. He shook him gently. "Mr. Solo?"
That time it got through. Solo blinked awake, looking bleary and startled, one hand coming up in a defensive movement. Illya let go and leaned back, reducing the apparent threat. "It's all right, it's just me. If you'd care to get up, I've heated some soup, and after you eat you can rest more comfortably since I've assembled the bed."
Solo looked confused, then leaned to one side so he could look around Illya at the room. "You've been busy."
"Somewhat. I also found the well, the exit, and most importantly, the loo."
"Wait, let me get this straight. You cleaned, you made a bed, literally, and you cooked?"
"I heated," Illya corrected. "Someone else did the cooking quite a long time ago. And I only had to assemble the bed, the parts were here already."
"It still counts." He shook his head admiringly. "All this, and a gorgeous blond on top of it? You'll make someone a wonderful wife, Mr. Kuryakin."
Illya rolled his eyes. "My mother will be thrilled by the news." He stood, then leaned down and held out a hand. "Come on, up."
Solo clasped his hand and Illya braced him to his feet, steadying him when he swayed a little, and followed him over to the table, ready to catch him if he wobbled. Though slow, however, Napoleon's steps were careful and steady. He sank down into one of the chairs and looked down at the bowl blankly, then back at Illya. "Seriously, thank you for doing everything. I owe you one," Solo said, then he shook his head. "Actually, I owe you two now."
"Eat," Illya ordered roughly, oddly irked by Solo's gratitude.
Solo nodded and spooned up a bit of broth, sniffing, and then eating. Illya took the seat across from him and set to as well. The can had been intact and the contents had smelled fine, but even so he had boiled the soup long enough that he was sure no bacteria could possibly have survived.
After only a few mouthfuls, Solo put down his spoon and sighed. "I think that's all I can risk." He picked up the cup next to the bowl, looked inside, and sniffed. "No wine?"
"Perhaps next time. I thought water would be best now. Oh, and here." He dug his aspirin tin out of his pocket and pinched it open, offering it. "These should help."
"I didn't know they had Boy Scouts in the Soviet Union."
"We have better, the Vsesoyuznaya Pionerskaya, and after that, Komsomol," Illya returned blandly.
Solo flashed him a smile that let him know his humor had been appreciated, and took two of the pills. washing them down with several quick swallows that emptied the cup, and then he looked pointedly at Illya. "Not that I'm not grateful for the domesticity, but shouldn't we be trying to get out of here?"
Illya shook his head. "There's no reason. We're safe here for now, which we won't be once we leave this room. And you're not in any shape to be climbing or running. We'll stay here a few days while you recover."
Solo's gaze narrowed. "I don't need to be babied."
He stood, took a step, and Illya had to scramble out of his chair and catch him as he started to topple. "You were saying?"
"Um . . ." Solo said muzzily. "I take it back. Baby me all you like. I, ah, you mentioned something about a loo?"
Illya hastily pushed him back to arm's length. "You're not about to be sick on me, are you?"
That brought a laugh, followed by a wince. "Don't worry," Solo managed after a moment. "It's just that all the liquids woke up my kidneys."
"Ah." Illya paused for a moment, eyeing him up and down.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Solo asked impatiently.
"If I carry you over my shoulder it will hurt your ribs, but you and I are close enough in size that it would be awkward to lift you any other way."
Solo looked disgusted. "How about we just walk there? I think I can manage if you . . ." his voice trailed off and he looked at Illya more closely. "I can't believe I fell for that," he exclaimed softly, grinning.
"You did say I should baby you."
Solo sighed, shaking his head. "I'm going to have to remember this about you. A sense of humor is a rare commodity in our line of work."
Odd that he'd thought something similar not long ago. "Come, you can lean on me if you need to."
"I can, can't I?" Solo asked cryptically. "Get a move on, would you?"
Illya nodded and retrieved the torch from the table, using it to light the way as they made their way down the narrow corridor. When they passed the exit he shielded the lens with his hand and nodded toward it. "That's the real entrance and exit, it lets into a kitchen pantry. I'll go out that way tonight after things quiet down."
Solo stopped walking to look at him. "Go where? Why?"
"I still have a transmitter and camera to plant. I should be able to accomplish that and return fairly quickly."
"Are you sure that's wise? They'll be on the alert."
"They won't be looking for someone breaking into the place. They'll be guarding exits hoping to stop you from getting out, though by now they must think you're long gone."
Solo nodded slowly, still frowning. "I suppose youíre right."
"I am always right," Illya said. "Come, not much farther."
Solo snorted derisively, but let Illya help him the rest of the way down the hall and into the tiny garderobe. He looked around it, then back at Illya with a lifted eyebrow. "This is the loo?"
"It is. And before you complain, consider that it makes up in historicity what it lacks in atmosphere."
Illya nodded. "Judging by the design, it must have been original to the castle. Youíre . . . excreting where royalty once excreted."
Solo laughed, and then winced, hugging his ribs. "Stop making me laugh, damn it. And Iím beginning to think the whole Ďlive like a kingí thing was overrated."
"It was." Illya set the flashlight on the wall sconce next to the unlit candle, and nodded at the jacket Solo still wore. "There are tissues in the left pocket of my jacket should you need them. Let me know when youíre ready to leave."
Leaving Solo to his mission, Illya went back to move the slide that covered the eye-slits in the exit so he could look into the pantry. There was activity in the kitchen, two men preparing a meal. From the proportions of the ingredients, they were cooking for about a dozen men, which implied a rather small security contingent for a conference expected to draw THRUSH heads from all over Europe. He guessed that meant most of the security would arrive with the participants, which made sense. THRUSH kingpins trusted each other about as much as a farmer would trust a fox to guard a henhouse. That would actually be helpful to him, since they would be unfamiliar with the rooms and so less likely to discover his surveillance devices.
From what he could see the kitchen appeared to have been recently modernized, the appliances were new, the pots and pans bright and not battered. A huge walk-in freezer occupied all of one wall, filled, no doubt, or soon to be, with expensive delicacies for ostensible gourmands who were probably too stupid to appreciate their bounty. That fit with the remodeling and redecorating he had noted elsewhere while placing bugs and cameras. Clearly no effort had been spared to make the old castle fit for THRUSH royalty. He and Solo were just lucky that no one had decided to rebuild the pantry while they were at it.
"What's so interesting?" Solo whispered in his ear.
Illya managed not to jump, somehow, but his pulse was thundering so loudly in his ears it took him a moment to regroup and answer. "Nothing. Just reconnoitering." He eased the slide back into place. "You didn't call me."
"I'm feeling a little better."
"Good. The aspirin must be working."
Solo nodded. "I think the food helped too. Now if I just had a couple of Ace bandages I'd be set."
"I have three in my knapsack."
Solo lifted his gaze toward the ceiling and folded his hand together with a look of piety. "Thank you, Lord, for sending me a guardian angel."
"In the form of a godless unbeliever," Illya said drily. "Come, I'll make a mummy of you."
"I don't think that's physically possible," Solo said, leaning on him only a little as they started back.
Illya sighed and shook his head, and let that one alone. By the time they had reached the main room and Illya had wrapped Solo's midriff tightly enough in elastic bandages to give his injured ribs some support, Solo's brief surge of energy had flagged again, and he barely protested when Illya ordered him into the bed. He slept quietly, not snoring or tossing, and the sound of his steady breathing was oddly soothing in the quiet as Illya read the brittle copy of The Three Musketeers he'd found in the trunk under the bedding. It was nice to have something to read, and even nicer that it was in the original French. He liked to keep up his language skills.
He blessed his good fortune in having something to do when it turned out to be nearly four hours before his periodic checks of the pantry revealed that all was dark and quiet. Glad to finally be able to get to work, he emptied his knapsack of everything but his toolkit and the last few devices he needed to plant, then headed out to finish his task.
* * *
Illya's fingers were so stiff and he was shivering so hard that it took him three tries to get the door to open, hoping all the while that the cooks didn't come in to start breakfast while he was standing there fumbling with the door mechanism. He was ravenous, too, and it was tempting to steal some food, but he couldn't be sure the items wouldn't be missed and he'd almost been caught once already. Finally he triggered the release and the door scraped open. He slipped through it and turned to reclose it quickly, only to find other fingers already there doing it for him. He was too exhausted to really startle, but he did have a moment of slightly feeble hope that it wasn't a guard.
"Where the hell have you been?" Solo hissed as the door closed, leaving them in total darkness. "You've been gone forever!"
"Sorry, there were . . . complications." Illya leaned against the wall, the flush of relief he felt at discovering the other person was just Solo dissipating the last of the adrenaline that had kept him going. "Why are you out of bed?"
"Because I was about to come looking for you," Solo said irritably. "I thought you'd been caught."
"Not quite, just almost," Illya admitted. "If not for the fortuitous intervention of a mouse-chasing feline I would have been."
There was a click, and sudden light made him flinch as Solo swung the torch his way. He winced away from it, but felt Solo grip his arm.
"Come . . . what the . . . you're soaking wet!"
"I commend your powers of observation." His eyes adjusted to the light, and he pushed himself away from the wall and began to walk away from Solo, to where he knew there would be warmth.
"And you're limping."
"That's nothing." Right on cue his knee locked up and he stumbled. Solo was at his side in an instant a warm hand on his shoulder, the contrast making Illya feel even colder.
"Nothing? It doesn't look like nothing."
"Really, it is. It's old. It just stiffens in the cold. I'm uninjured."
"All well and good, but you're wet, and your lips are starting to match your eyes, which isn't as attractive as it might sound." Solo helped him upright, and this time kept a hand on his arm as they walked.
"I had to hide outside on a ledge. It's raining."
"For how long?"
"How should I know how long it's been raining?" Illya snapped irritably. "It was raining when I went out there and it was still raining when I came back in." They finally made it back to the main room and Illya headed over to the stove, crouching to open the load door and look inside, glad to see the embers were still live.
"I meant how long on the ledge," Solo said, handing him a smallish piece of wood.
Illya pushed it carefully into the stove, setting it well amongst the coals. "I wasn't looking at my watch, I had to use my hands to hold onto the wall. How long was I gone?"
"About four hours."
"Then I was outside about three hours."
Solo muttered a curse under his breath. "You're probably hypothermic, or close to it. Strip down."
Illya didn't argue, just started peeling off his soaked clothing as Solo retrieved a blanket from the bed. Once he'd shed his clothes, Solo wrapped the blanket around him.
"Don't they pay you European agents? You're skin and bones."
"Send it home," Illya muttered, yawning, ambushed by fatigue.
"Keep enough to live on, idiot, you canít support anyone if you starve," Solo admonished, and steered him toward the bed. "Get in, I'll add some wood to the fire."
He sat down on the bed and looked at the cupboard. "I'm hungry," he complained.
Solo pawed through the contents of Illyaís knapsack which heíd left behind on the table, coming up with one of the chocolate bars. He unwrapped it and handed it to Illya. "Here. Eat."
Illya did so, savoring the rich taste, the way the candy melted even in his cold mouth, and the way it made his stomach shut up. Solo went back over to the stove and stoked it, filled a pan from the pitcher of water Illya had drawn earlier, and set it on the stove to heat. Then he picked up Illya's clothes from where he'd dropped them and draped them over the backs of the chairs, setting his boots close to the stove to dry out. It was nice to have someone do those things for him. Usually he would have had to do it all himself. After a few moments he realized something that had been nagging at him for a while, but his thinking had been too fuzzy to make the connection.
"Why donít you make it Napoleon? And yes?"
"Napoleon," Illya said obediently. "I am not shivering."
Solo stared at him for a long moment, and oddly, Illya could tell the moment the import of that statement sank in, despite the fact that his expression didnít really alter from one of mild curiosity. Only his eyes betrayed his concern. He looked over at the water heíd just put on the stove and shook his head. "Damn it," he swore softly. "Thatís not ready yet." He frowned, then came over to the bed and tapped Illya's shoulder. "Lie down. You're too cold and I'm too hot, hopefully together we'll average."
Illya stretched out. Solo stripped to his briefs and bandages and slid in beside him, wrapping an arm around his waist. He was wonderfully warm, and Illya sighed, pressing closer. Soloís hands began to move on his skin, their warmth just past pleasant and into painful as the chafing began to restore blood flow. Illya squirmed and pushed at Solo, fighting the discomfort.
"Cut it out," Solo growled, rolling over on top of him, pinning him.
He was well-fed-American solid, and his weight was more than Illya could move at the moment, muzzy-headed as he was. Some part of him knew Solo was trying to help, so he stopped struggling and let Solo do as he wished. Warm hands cupped his face, warm fingers rubbed gently at cold cheeks, and nose, and eyelids, then moved up to massage his scalp as warm breath was exhaled over first one ear and then the other. That sensation made him shiver responsively, and it was as if that gave his whole body permission to unlock. He started to shiver in earnest then, great, nearly convulsive shudders.
"Thatís it," Solo said encouragingly. "Thatís good." The warm body continued to blanket his, and the warm hands continued their roaming, down his neck, over his shoulders, down his arms, back up again, down his chest. Gradually the shivering lessened, becoming less fierce, and Solo pushed up on his hands, looking down at Illya. "Iím going to get up now," he said, and started to move away.
Illya locked his legs over Soloís. "No."
"Itís okay, Illya, Iíll just be a minute. The water must be hot now. Let go, all right?"
Illya sighed, and let go. "All right."
Solo slipped out of the bed and made a beeline for the stove, pouring some from the pan into a cup. Returning to the bed, he urged Illya to sit up and helped him wrap his fingers around the mug, whose contents steamed visibly. "Drink this, itíll help."
Obediently Illya lifted it and drank some of the hot liquid. It was almost hot enough to scald, but not quite. He made a face. "Too weak."
Solo frowned. "Youíre too weak to swallow?"
Illya shook his head. "The tea. Itís too weak. Should be stronger. And I like it sweet."
Solo chuckled. "Iíll remember that for next time, but sorry, pardner, it's not tea, just hot water. We donít have any tea, or any coffee for that matter, either of which would be welcome at this point."
"Oh." Illya sipped some more. "Is. . . itís not so bad, then." By the time heíd finished the entire cup, his shivers had waned to gentle, intermittent tremors, and his mind was starting to focus again. "Another?" he asked, holding out the cup.
Solo filled it again and gave it back to him. Illya drank more quickly this time, and when heíd finished he set the cup down on the floor next to the bed and stretched out again, reaching to pull the blanket back around himself.
"Shove over," Solo ordered, and when Illya obeyed, slid in behind him, still a welcome source of warmth.
Illya leaned back into him gratefully. After a moment Soloís hands started moving over his shoulders and chest, warm palms occasionally straying to his flanks before moving back up. It was comforting, and oddly hypnotic. The realization that he was starting to get hard made it clear that it was also more than a little sensual. He reached out and caught Soloís wrists in his hands. "Stop now."
There was a moment of silence, and then Solo tugged his hands free and slipped out of the bed on the other side, bending to pick up his clothing. After a moment he turned, undershirt and trousers held loosely in his hands. "I . . . ah. . . Iím sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
Illya looked at Solo, registering the flush of color in his face, and the awkward way he held his clothes. He held a ten-second debate with himself, but the conclusion was inevitable. He'd discovered some time back that a surprising number of his fellow agents were more . . . flexible than the average person on the street. Perhaps something to do with the psychology of constant concealment, or the somewhat elastic morality they were required to cultivate. In any case, whether or not he was reading Solo correctly, there was no point in alienating him. "You didnít."
Solo studied him for long seconds, and then his lips curved upward ever so slightly. "Good. So then you. . . ?"
Illya felt a smile tugging at his own mouth. "Right now I just need to concentrate on getting warm."
"Of course. I understand completely."
"Good." Illya paused for a beat, and then lifted an eyebrow. "Speaking of getting warm, unless you feel it would put too great a strain on our acquaintance, your company would still be a help."
There was no hesitation. Solo was back in the bed in a heartbeat, his clothing once more abandoned on the floor. He kept his hands to himself this time, though, just supplying a source of radiant heat. After a moment he spoke. "So what happened up there?"
"I was in the grand solar putting in the second bug, when I heard voices in the hall. I managed to roll behind a couch just as the door opened and two guards came in, talking between themselves about having heard something and debating what it had been."
Solo shifted a little, pulling the blanket up over Illya's shoulders. "Sorry. You're still cold enough to radiate."
Illya nodded impatiently, and continued. "They started searching the room, and were seconds from finding me when there was a noise in the hallway and they both left to investigate. I took advantage of the moment to open the glass in the lancet window and squeeze through it. I barely fit, and it was impossible to close the window again. I had to block the gap with my body to keep the wind and rain from alerting them to the open window. They came back in, laughing at having been startled by a cat, and proceeded to settle in with a bottle of wine and a deck of cards. I had to wait for them to go off to bed before I could go back inside."
"Why didnít you climb to a different window in another room?"
Illya laughed humorlessly. "Youíll understand the answer to that when we leave here. Let's just say it was not an option."
"I see," Solo said, though he clearly didn't. "We can try to plant that bug tomorrow night."
Illya shook his head. "No need. I did it before I came back here."
Solo shook his head and gave a low whistle. "You're something else."
"What would you have done?"
There was a short pause, and a sigh. "Probably the same thing. Except I'm not sure I'd have fit through the window if you almost didn't."
"True," Illya said, reaching back to pat Solo's hip. "But that's nothing a few weeks retraining at Survival School wouldn't cure."
His wrist was caught in an iron grip. "Watch it, buster."
Illya chuckled, and Solo dropped his wrist in favor of wrapping both hands around his throat in a mock-strangulation. "You're a cheeky little bastard, aren't you?"
"Mm," Illya said noncommittally. "I beat your score, you know."
Solo's hands relaxed. "I do know that. I told you I'd heard of you. Jules made sure of that."
"Mr. Cutter does like to foster rivalries, it's one of his 'excellence' techniques."
"One I think does more harm than good, frankly."
Illya nodded, and suddenly yawned. "Sorry, long night."
"For both of us. Time to sleep."
"Candles," Illya said.
Solo sighed. "Bossy, too."
"Yeah, yeah." Solo got up again and went around the room dousing the candles before returning to the bed. When he'd settled in again, he wrapped an arm around Illya's waist and tucked the other one under the folded blanket that served them as a pillow. "Night sweetie," he said insincerely.
"Good night, dear," Illya echoed, smiling into the darkness, his eyelids already closing.
"You only beat two of them, anyway," Solo said.
"Go to sleep," Illya said, his grin even wider.
It had been three.
* * *
Illya woke up feeling overheated, and it took him a moment to remember where he was and why there was someone extremely warm plastered up against his back. When the puzzle pieces clicked into place, he realized the aspirin had worn off and Solo's fever had elevated again. Carefully so as not to wake Solo, Illya eased himself out of the bed and groped for the torch that lay on the floor beside it, shielding it with his hand so he could find and reclaim his clothing, which fortunately had dried during the night. Turning off the torch, he dressed quietly and then sat down to think.
In the cold light of morningĖ well, actually the cold dark of morning since the candles werenít lit and the stove had gone outĖ he was appalled by his lack of discretion. Clearly heíd been more affected by the incipient hypothermia than heíd realized, to have come so close to flat out telling Solo things best kept hidden. In fact, taking a step back to analyze everything that had occurred since heíd found Solo, he was honestly confused both by his own actions, and Soloís.
It suddenly seemed oddly coincidental that Solo had turned up in a totally different country from where he was supposed to be, in a place where Illya hadnít planned on being, either. Not being a big believer in destiny, Illya wondered if his informant in Porto had set him up to find Solo here.
Perhaps Solo had been conditioned in some way? No. Ridiculous thought. It was simply too farfetched. Not only had Solo not been missing long enough to have been conditioned, Illya had seen no sign of the sophisticated sort of set up that would have required. No drugs, no audio-visual devices, not even a doctor, mad or otherwise.
Alternatively, he supposed Jules Cutterís rivalry-fostering might have succeeded a bit too well and Solo had seized the opportunity to secure blackmail material on a potential competitor. Again, farfetched.
Apart from the fact that UNCLE knew about the sexual proclivities of its agents thus making blackmail unlikely to succeed, there was also the fact that heíd never heard a truly negative word about Napoleon Solo from anyone whoíd worked with him. That didn't put him completely above suspicion, but though he'd heard griping about Solo's incessant womanizing and his 'damnable luck' as someone had put it, everyone seemed to agree he was a top-notch agent.
Apart from all of that, for reasons he could not explain, Illya trusted him. It made no sense at all and he would probably end up regretting it, but there it was. He sighed, frustrated both by his own absurd paranoia and his inability to force events or his own emotions to fit a logical pattern.
A soft sound brought him to alert, but then he identified it as the creak of the bed-ropes and relaxed. Solo must have turned over. A moment later he heard a soft mutter, then a louder gasp, followed by . . .
He resisted the urge to correct Solo's pronunciation. "Here." He found the matches on the table and lit a candle. Solo's face looked pale in the faint light, and shiny with sweat. "More aspirin?"
"Please," Solo gritted. "Just one. Rationing."
Illya nodded. It was a wise idea, as their supply was limited and their stay indefinite. He got out an aspirin, poured a cup of water from the now-cold pan on the stove, and took both over to Solo, helping him sit up since his cracked ribs made it difficult to do on his own. Solo took the aspirin, downing it and the entire cup of water, and then leaned back against Illya with a sigh.
Illya nodded. Solo tilted his head to look at Illya. "So do you usually sit around in the dark?"
"I didn't want to wake you, and I suspected the smell of a match used to light a candle would do so."
"You're probably right. Thanks."
"I'm concerned about the fever," Illya said after a moment. "Considering the beating you took, it could mean peritonitis."
Solo shook his head. "I think it's just a bug. I was feeling a little off even before they worked me over."
"Are you sure? You've no abdominal pain?"
Solo considered the question and then shrugged. "I can't say I have no pain, but I think I'd know if it was bad enough to be peritonitis."
"Where does it hurt?"
Solo made an ambiguous gesture toward his right lower abdomen, and Illya frowned, some vague memory about appendicitis and the McBurney Point surfacing. "Lie down."
"I want to check something."
Solo sighed, and maneuvered himself back down. "Fine. Happy?"
"Not yet." Illya tugged Solo's briefs down to his hipbone on the right side, mentally estimated where two-thirds of the way from there to the navel was, and pressed on the spot firmly. Solo made a strangled sort of coughing sound, and Illya looked up at his face, which sported a tortured-looking smile. "Did that hurt?"
Solo shook his head, and this time the sound he made was definitely a laugh, not a cough. "No, it tickled. And if you ever tell anyone I'm ticklish, I promise you will live to regret it."
Arranging his face into the most solemn lines he could manage, Illya held up a hand. "Your secret is safe, I swear it on Lenin's Tomb."
For a few seconds Solo looked relieved, but then his eyes narrowed. "Safe from everyone but you," he grumbled.
Illya gave him an arch look. "Didn't the estimable Mr. Cutter teach you to never forget a potential tactical advantage?"
"Uh huh. So what's your secret weakness?"
"I could tell you," Illya began.
"But then you'd have to kill me," Solo finished.
Illya felt a shiver go through him, and shook it off, giving Solo a bland smile he hoped disguised his sudden discomfort. "Precisely. Are you hungry? There are some twenty-year-old oats in a sealed canister. They may even still be edible."
Solo nodded, and Illya turned away to go find the container of oats. He felt a little rattled. The level of rapport he and Solo seemed to have established and the ease with which they had done so was completely disconcerting to him. He simply didn't . . . connect to people like this. Not often, at any rate. Certainly not since he'd come to the West, cultural barriers had seen to that. The severity of his rattled state was clear when he realized, after filling the pan with water and setting it on the stove, that he hadn't kindled the fire yet, and breakfast would be a good long while coming.
As he shaved some kindling off a larger log with his knife, he felt Solo watching him, and looked up, surprising a slight frown on the other man's face. "Is there a problem?"
Solo shook his head. "No. I was just . . . are you always so . . . efficient?"
Illya blinked at him in confusion. "What?"
"Never mind. I'm just jealous," Solo said with a sigh. "I'm guessing breakfast will be a while?"
Illya nodded, ducking his head to watch the shavings curl onto the floor, hoping the position hid the flush on his face. "Yes. I should have lit the fire when I got up."
Solo chuckled. "Oh, thank God, something you didn't do right the first time. I may get out of here with a shred of ego intact."
"From what I've heard, that shouldn't be a problem," Illya shot back, though as soon as it was out of his mouth he wished he could recall it. What on earth was wrong with him? "I'm sorry, I shouldn't . . ."
Solo held up a hand, shaking his head, smiling a little. "It's all right. I know what my reputation's like. And it's not entirely undeserved. However, I think you, of all people, understand that what some people call egotism can be something else entirely."
He held Illyaís gaze challengingly, but it still took Illya a moment to realize that heíd just been tarred with his own brush. When it sank in, he started to smile. "Indeed. Sadly, not everyone does." They stared at each other for a moment, that sense of accord springing up again, weirdly intense, until Illya felt like he needed to say something, anything. He cleared his throat. "I should start the fire."
Solo nodded, breaking eye contact, and Illya turned away to open the stove and arrange kindling and wood in the fire-box, relieved, but still somewhat perplexed by his own actions and reactions. Maybe he was a little stir-crazy from being confined in such close quarters with Solo. He chose not to dwell on the fact that heíd been out of the room for hours the previous night.
"So who all is invited to this THRUSH shindig?" Solo asked, and Illya heard the bedropes creak as Solo changed position.
"Oh, the usual suspects. Marton, Gervais, Boyer, Nicopolous, Olivetti, I'm sure the other names are just as familiar."
There was a brief silence. Illya lit the kindling and waited to see if it caught. Finally Solo spoke.
"An entire Who's Who of THRUSH will be gathered in one place and all we're doing is planting bugs?" he asked incredulously. "Why aren't we calling in a missile strike?"
"Because we're the good guys, remember?" Illya said, standing up, satisfied the fire had caught.
Solo sighed. "Right. Right. For a minute there I forgot. There are times it would be so much easier to be on the other side."
Illya nodded. "This is true." He took out the can opener and went to work on the tin of oats with the can-opener from the second trunk. "I often must remind myself that THRUSH is more like a hydra than a dragon. Cut off one head, or even several, and the rest still lives, and grows new heads to replace the old."
"How very literary of you," Solo said, and Illya could feel him watching, like a physical thing. "Speaking of literature, were there any more books or did you get the only one?"
"There was only one, but you're welcome to it, if you read French."
"Actually, I do. Want me to read aloud while you cook? It would pass the time."
Illya almost declined the offer, but Solo sounded a little plaintive. He was probably bored. It wouldn't hurt anything, and he was right, it would pass the time. He put down the tin and paused a moment to whittle a couple of spills from one of the logs, which he lit from the candle on the table and then went around the room lighting other candles so there would be enough light to read by. He wished there was kerosene for the lanterns but the jug of lantern fuel he'd found in the wardrobe had long since evaporated. Once he had the candles lit, he picked up the book from the table and took it over to Solo.
"Where did you leave off?" Solo asked, flipping through the pages.
"You can start from the beginning," Illya said, going back to the can-opener. "It will read better that way."
Solo shrugged, opened the book, and began to read. He had a pleasant voice, but a very unusual accent. It certainly wasn't continental, or Asian, or Caribbean, which didn't leave many options. Illya finally decided it was most likely Québecois. Illya had never been to Quebec or spoken with anyone from there, so it was the one accent he wasn't familiar with.
By the time the stove had heated up enough to cook on, Solo was on chapter three, and his voice was getting a little husky. Illya poured another cup of water and took it over to him. As Solo drank it Illya studied him curiously.
"I thought you were an American."
"Ah. Did you attend school in Canada?"
Solo smirked. "No. Try again."
Illya thought for a moment, and then nodded. "Your mother?"
That time Solo made a face. "Lucky guess."
"There weren't many other options. Do you want to keep reading or rest your voice?"
"How long until breakfast?"
"Ten minutes, give or take."
"I'll read until then. After we eat maybe we can do something else."
"I don't know. Play chess?"
"No chess set."
"We could improvise. You have any loose change? Maybe a piece of paper?"
"Both. We'll see what we can do with them later."
Solo nodded and went back to reading. He was good at making the voices sound individual, just the way Illya's mother could. It made the story more interesting. Illya went back to stirring oatmeal until it seemed to be done, then he spooned, or rather, shoveled it into two bowls. He had some vague idea that Americans ate their oatmeal sweetened, so he went to the cupboard and got out the jar of what he was fairly sure was some kind of jam. The seal broke with a tiny hiss as he opened it, and the paraffin layer over the contents was clean and intact.
He fished out the paraffin and stuck a finger into the contents, and then brought it out again and sucked it off. Sticky. Sweet. Fruity. Definitely jam. Plum, unless he missed his guess. Sudden silence made him look up to find Solo staring at him, lips slightly parted as if caught mid-word by shock. Embarrassed, Illya yanked his finger from his mouth, feeling himself flush again. He sometimes forgot how obsessed with cleanliness Americans were. "Sorry. I was just checking to see what it was. I should have used a spoon."
Solo shut his mouth, swallowed, and shook his head, waving a hand nonchalantly. "Don't feel you have to use the good silver on my account. I'm a field agent. I can eat ants with the best of 'em."
Illya relaxed a little and shared a commiseratory smile with Solo. That had been the worst part of survival school, in his opinion. He hadn't complained, but there was a small part of him that thought growing up in Ukraine during the thirties should have exempted him from having to go through that again. He set the jar on the table, plunked the bowls down on either side and looked at Solo again. "Do you need help getting up?"
Solo shook his head, pushing against the bed with both hands to help lever himself up slowly and obviously painfully. "Nah," he said a little breathlessly. "I can do it." Illya let him, knowing how annoying it was to be fussed over, and Solo made his way over to the table, the blanket wrapped around himself in lieu of clothing. As he settled onto the chair and arranged the folds of cloth he pointed to his ribs. "I'll probably ask you to rewrap the bandages soon. They've loosened up."
Illya nodded, taking his own seat. Napoleon looked at the jar between them and lifted his eyebrows. "So, what is it?"
"Plum jam, I believe. There's no sugar or syrup, so I thought you might like it for the cereal."
Solo looked around, puzzled. "Cereal?"
Equally puzzled, Illya pointed at his bowl. "Cereal. Is there another word I should use?"
Solo shook his head, laughing. "No, no, of course it's cereal. I just. . . for a minute there I was looking for the corn flakes. We tend to forget, back home, that oatmeal was cereal a long time before corn flakes and puffed rice were."
"Then Americans don't generally call oatmeal 'cereal'?" Solo shook his head, and Illya filed the tidbit away. "Good to know. Idioms are very important."
Solo reached for the jam and put two spoonsful in his oatmeal, stirring it around. "You know, you don't sound Russian," he said, lifting a bite to his lips.
"Thank you," Illya said, and then took his own first bite. It needed salt and butter, but it was certainly better than starving.
Solo swallowed and looked around. "Water?"
Illya got up and retrieved Solo's cup from beside the bed, filled it, and placed it near his hand. "I wouldn't do this if you weren't injured."
"Of course not," Solo agreed, picking up the cup and taking a drink. After he put it down again he looked over at Illya, who had resumed his place and his meal. "You know, when I said you didn't sound Russian that was supposed to be a conversational opening. You were supposed to tell me why you don't sound Russian."
"Ah. Well, it's because I work at it. Sounding Russian is a liability in the . . ." he caught himself just before he identified his Soviet alma mater, and while he might trust Solo personally, there were things he was much better off not revealing; ". . . in our profession. I attended a very rigorous language school before coming to the West. We were docked a day's pay for every dropped article after the first month. Our professors were all from Oxford, or Cambridge, except for the one who was an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company."
"No Americans? No Texans, or Minnesotans, or even any Hollywood actors?"
"No. You see, when you speak English frequently, the accent tends to creep into your native speech, and no one wanted to sound American. It makes your friends and family nervous."
Solo stared at him for a moment, frowning, but then he slowly nodded. "I never thought of it that way, but I, ah, guess can see how it might, all things considered."
"All things considered." Illya echoed, and then returned to his oatmeal. It definitely needed butter and salt. Surely the kitchen wouldn't miss a bit of either. They weren't the sort of thing one measured strictly in a kitchen. And tea. Even the bagged sort would be better than nothing. Coffee would be nice as well, but he had a feeling a percolator would be missed. Later he would have to see about obtaining a few more supplies. After a few moments of silence, it occurred to him that Solo had been making a friendly overture, and he looked up to find Solo watching him. Immediately the other agent looked down at his bowl, swirling his spoon around in the oats with great interest.
"What's it like, working for Waverly?" Illya asked after a few seconds of casting around for a likely topic.
Solo gave a wry smile. "Terrible. And great. One minute he's a cold-blooded son of a bitch without any regard for human frailty, and the next minute he understands something about you that you've never mentioned to anyone, let alone him, and is making allowances for it. Sometimes you want to throttle him, and sometimes you want to go down on your knees and thank God for letting you work for a man like that. He'll never let you down when you really need him. He expects a hundred and ten percent, and somehow despite everything, you never do less than that for him. I'm sure you know what I mean."
Illya stared at him blankly, and shook his head. "Frankly, no." He shrugged. "Leadership, in my experience, has little to do with personal effort. One does one's best because it's what one does. It's a matter of pride."
Solo studied him for a long moment, and then shook his head. "I'm sorry to hear that. I mean, not that you take pride in your work, I could tell that from the moment we met, but that you've never had the chance to work for someone like Alexander Waverly. I hope someday that changes."
Illya quirked a smile his way. "As do I, which is why mine is one of those many transfer applications from Europe we spoke of yesterday."
Solo's gaze narrowed. "After my job, are you, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya shook his head. "It will take me a year or two to become conversant enough with the customs, conventions, and interstate highway system of America to even think about going after your job, Mr. Solo, so you are safe for now."
"Pretty sure you'll make the transfer list, eh?"
"Mr. Waverly, as you have mentioned, is no fool."
Solo chuckled. "That he's not." He lifted his cup in a mock salute. "I look forward to seeing where you land. I have a feeling there'll be quite an impact crater."
Illya felt his own smile widen. "Oh, no, Mr. Solo, I have never blown a dismount."
"Dismount?" Solo lifted an eyebrow with a slightly salacious expression.
Illya wondered what double-entendre he was missing. He wasn't about to let on he didn't know. "I was a gymnast, back home," he explained.
"Ah." Solo looked faintly disappointed. "In any case, I'll be watching your career with interest. And it's Napoleon, remember? You used my name last night, why are we back to formal now?"
Illya thought about it for a moment, and smiled a little. "I suppose it seemed more natural to call you by your first name when we were both unclothed."
Solo's eyebrows lifted again, and he licked oatmeal off his spoon suggestively. "That's easily remedied."
Illya snorted and applied himself to finishing his meal. Solo sighed after a moment and followed suit. He also finished eating first. Probably because without salt and butter, Illya found the oatmeal a little difficult to choke down. He kept reminding himself that food was food and he was lucky to have it, but after living in the decadent West, his tongue had somehow gotten the idea that food was supposed to have flavor. A slight clinking sound made him look up to find Solo holding the jam, tapping the jar with his spoon, a query on his face. Illya thought about it for a moment, and then held out his hand for the jar.
Two spoonsful of jam helped immensely.
"Thattaboy," Solo said, smugly as Illya finished his meal. "As skinny as you are, every calorie counts."
Illya schooled his expression to blandness as he collected their dishes. He'd had a rough year so far. He'd been in hospital three times, once with pneumonia after a session of Thrush water-torture, a second time with a relapse of said pneumonia after trying to go back to work too soon, and most recently some sort of nasty intestinal thing he'd picked up in Africa. None of that had helped his physique and he knew it, but he wasn't going to let Solo provoke him into being defensive.
"We are not all fortunate enough to live in a land of . . . plenty," he said with a quick glance at Solo's blanket-swathed midsection. Solo looked down at himself, frowning, and Illya hid his grin by turning away to take the dishes to the basin to wash them. A moment later he heard a rustling sound, and a soft grunt of effort, and then he sensed Solo's presence behind him.
"You cooked, I should wash," he said.
Well, that was a surprise. He hadn't figured Solo the sort to volunteer for a menial task. He turned around to see if the offer was serious, and found himself almost nose-to-nose with Solo, who had left his blanket at the table and was attired in nothing but Ace bandages and white cotton briefs. And was sucking in his stomach in a way that had to make his ribs ache.
"Would you like me to rewrap those before you do the dishes?" Illya queried, slipping a finger beneath the edge of the lower bandage. "They've definitely become loose."
Solo sighed. "Please," he said, wincing a little as his stomach muscles relaxed.
The relaxation didn't make that much difference in Solo's girth, which was really quite acceptable and only a tiny bit soft. His own belly could betray a similar softness when he was healthy. Illya felt vaguely guilty about inciting that wince, but only vaguely. If Solo was going to make personal remarks, he deserved what he got. "Come over to the light."
Solo followed him closer to the cluster of candles on the table and stood patiently while Illya unwound and then rewound the bandages. The activity gave Illya the opportunity to study him in more detail than he'd previously been able. Not a tall man, he was perhaps an inch or two over Illya's own height, barrel-chested, with strong shoulders and smooth, fair skin that contrasted strikingly with his dark hair and eyes. He had that peculiarly American almost-triangular silhouette, though his quadriceps and gluteus muscles were better than most. Truthfully there was little to twit him about as far as his body went, with the exception of slightly underdeveloped calf-muscles. He should run more. And Illya would have to have been blind to miss the soft, heavy curve beneath the white cotton briefs in front. He made it a point to look away quickly, but the image lingered in his mind's eye.
He finished wrapping the second bandage and clipped it in place, thinking that it would probably be a good idea to make sure they didn't share the bed again. The need to keep watch should take care of that, one could sleep while the other watched. He stepped back. "There. All finished," he said, patting Solo's shoulder in a comradely fashion. Solo's skin was warm and silken under his hand.
"Thank you. Ah, do you think you could help me get my pants on? It kind of hurts to bend over."
"Certainly." Illya crossed over to the bed to pick up Solo's trousers where they lay on the floor beside it, and his undershirt as well. The trousers weren't in bad shape but the shirt reeked of stale sweat and was stiff with blood in places. Illya realized at once why Solo had only asked for his trousers. He wrinkled his nose and headed for the stove with the shirt, opening the load door.
"Hey!" Solo protested. "That's the only shirt I have."
Illya used a stick to push it into the flames, watching with satisfaction as it caught fire. "It is not, however, the only one I have. You may borrow one of mine. You don't want to put that back on."
"I wasn't looking forward to it, no," Solo agreed.
Illya went to the pile of things he'd removed from his knapsack before setting out the night before, and pulled out the heavy jumper he'd packed. Hand knit of charcoal-grey wool, it was a favorite. He'd picked it up in Ireland for ridiculously little money, but it was a little large and so should fit Solo reasonably well. Retrieving the trousers from where he'd dropped them on the bed, he returned to Solo's side and knelt to help him into them. Solo hesitated for a moment and Illya looked up at him to see why. The slightly unfocused expression on Solo's face and the increasingly prominent swell beneath his briefs explained it all too well.
Clearly he hadn't been imagining things last night. For a moment he was tempted, but . . . technically he was on a mission, and even if he weren't, Solo's bruised ribs would make things problematic to say the least, so Illya dropped his gaze and pretended not to have noticed as he helped Solo step into his trousers, then drew them up to his waist and held them there while Solo fastened them.
It was difficult though, to stand so close and feign indifference when he wasn't indifferent at all. He liked Solo, and that seemed to be mutual, something of a rarity in his experience. And Solo was his type, if he could be said to have a type; not too large, attractive, dark-haired, smart-mouthed, and with something indefinable about him that hinted he might not mind being on the bottom in bed from time to time.
"All done now, thanks."
Solo's dry tone brought Illya out of his thoughts to realize he was still holding the man's trousers up when there was no need. He stepped back immediately and held out the jumper. "Now this?"
Solo looked at him for a long moment, then at the cloth bunched in his hand, and finally shook his head. "After I finish the dishes. Otherwise I'll just get the sleeves wet and that's annoying."
Illya nodded and draped the jumper over the back of a chair and then went back to his stash, rooting out the small field notebook he always carried. Tearing out several sheets, he folded the edges together to make a single, larger page and then took that, his pen, and all the change he could find back to the table where he sat and began sectioning the paper into an eight by eight grid, shading every other square.
Finishing that, he sorted out his change. He had twenty-one pennies, which gave him enough to use one for each pawn with some left over. The thrupences with their crowned portcullises went for rooks, four shield-embossed half-crowns became the knights, four sixpence featuring ships became bishops, and he used shillings, face and reverse, for the kings and queens.
"Remind me not to volunteer for dish duty when it's oatmeal," Solo said, coming to stand next to him. "That stuff dries like glue. Hey! You did it!" He sounded, and looked, delighted.
"Yeah, but I didn't think you would. You play?"
"Would I know how to make a chessboard if I didn't?"
"Ah, good point." Solo reached for the jumper on the chair and started to pull it on, then stopped abruptly with a wince. "Ouch."
"Need help with that, too?" Illya asked.
Solo made a face. "Yes, please."
Illya stood and bunched the jumper so he could slide it up one arm, over Solo's head, and then thread the other arm through the sleeve. He realized that Solo must have washed himself up as well as the dishes, because he didn't reek like his shirt had. He smelled clean, and a little like the soap Illya had stolen from the kitchen. Good, really.
"Honestly, I can dress myself, at least under normal circumstances."
Damn it. Daydreaming again. He yanked the jumper the rest of the way down and resumed his seat. "White or black?"
"How can you tell which is which?"
"We'll just have to remember."
Solo eyed him, and shrugged. "All right." He sat down across from Illya. "Black."
Illya hid his surprise. Interesting choice. He wondered if it was confidence or curiosity that prompted it. He considered his first move for a few moments, and then made it. Solo considered longer, and countered. When next he looked at his watch it had been nearly three hours, and he'd lost the game in all but name, and developed a healthy respect for Solo's strategic abilities. He reached out and turned over his king, conceding.
"Care for another game?" Solo asked with a sharky smile, fingers sliding the coins around on the paper like a shell-game barker, lining them up in their proper places.
"Not at the moment," Illya said regretfully. "I need to get some sleep so I can keep watch tonight."
A flash of disappointment crossed Solo's face, and Illya wondered briefly if it was for the game or for the realization that they wouldn't be sharing the bed again, but the expression was gone too quickly to really be analyzed as Solo nodded.
"Good idea." He picked up The Three Musketeers from where it lay on the table and opened it, shifting a little so the light fell more evenly on the pages. "Sleep well."
"Thank you." Illya stripped off his trousers and polo-neck, and slid into bed, closing his eyes, clearing his mind, slowing his breathing. Within moments he felt the telltale tug of unconsciousness and let himself go.
* * *
Illya woke to the growling clench of an empty stomach, and the feel of warm fingers on his upper arm. He opened his eyes, finding himself almost nose to nose with Solo. "Yes?"
"It's been four hours. I made lunch, or maybe dinner, it's kind of halfway in between. You hungry?"
"Always." Illya put a hand on the side of the bed and pushed himself up. Solo's hand fell away from his shoulder as he did, sliding down his arm, fingers tracing the curves of his triceps, biceps, then his forearm.
"All muscle," Solo murmured, withdrawing his hand. "Deceptive."
Illya smirked. "Useful."
Solo held out a hand to help him up, but Illya shook his head, not wanting to strain the other man's sore ribs. He stood and stepped into his trousers, feeling Solo's gaze on his fingers as he fastened up the buttons.
"Where'd you find black BDT's?" he asked conversationally.
"Military surplus and a packet of dye. They are practical, comfortable, and wear like iron."
Solo chuckled nostalgically. "That I remember. There was a time I used to pray they'd wear out so I'd have an excuse to wear something else."
After a moment of confusion, Illya realized that Solo was letting him know he'd served in the military and that his dislike was predicated on the difference between having to wear them as opposed to doing so voluntarily. "My Naval uniform coat is very warm and fits quite well, yet I still prefer not to wear it unless I have to," he said, offering Solo a similar tidbit about himself.
A smile lit Solo's face but he made no comment, just nodded at the table. "Come on, chow time."
Solo had fortified a can of soup with a jar of preserved beans and another of potatoes, turning it into a sort of stew. The result was surprisingly good, and much more filling than the soup alone would have been. Once they'd finished the stew, there was tinned fruit for afters, and for the first time in days Illya's stomach didn't feel half empty when the meal was over. He collected the dishes and washed up, then returned to the table where Solo was blatantly fondling the makeshift chessboard.
"I'll take black this time," he said.
Solo didn't argue.
The game took longer this time. He was on his guard and playing with more focus. It helped, but not enough. Nearly five hours later, he pushed his chair away from the table and stood, stretching stiffened muscles, and offered Solo his hand. "Excellent play, Mr. Solo. I have not given up two games in a row since I left Kiev."
"Napoleon," Solo corrected, his grip strong and firm, his palm dry "Who did you play in Kiev?"
"My grandfather, lyukavye staryj rebanyok."
Solo looked puzzled. "I thought your name was Kuryakin. Or was it your maternal grandfather?"
Illya laughed. "It was indeed my maternal grandfather, but that wasn't his name, it was his title. Everyone who played him called him that. In English, it would be 'wily old bastard.'"
The corners of Solo's eyes crinkled in amusement. "Should I be flattered?"
"Immensely. It's a shame he's gone. It would have been interesting to see lyukavye staryj rebanyok play lyukavye molodoi rebanyok."
"Molodoi?" Solo queried, picking up on the change, but mangling the pronunciation.
"Young," Illya said. "If you will excuse me, I must use the loo."
Solo nodded and began to reset the board. Illya took the torch and made his way down the passage to do his business. On the way back, as he passed the kitchen exit, it struck him that he had heard no noises and smelled no food other than their own in some time. Curious, he opened the view slit and peered out. The kitchen was dark. Quiet. No sign of life. He frowned and looked at his watch, confirming the time. There should have been activity. The two cooks from last night should have been busy preparing supper for the guards. In fact, he would have thought the important guests would be arriving by now, making it even busier. Something was wrong.
Cautiously he opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. A quick glance around showed none of the supplies that had stocked the shelves the previous night were still in place. A look into the freezer confirmed that it too was empty. He went out into the dark corridor and listened intently, hearing not a sound that would betray occupation. Thoughtfully, he returned to their hiding place and closed the door behind himself. When he reached the main room, Solo looked up, studied his face, and frowned.
"They're all gone." Illya said. "At least, from what I could tell with a brief reconnoiter."
Illya nodded. "The place seems deserted." He thought for a moment, and then realized what must have happened, and swore. All that work for nothing.
"What?" Solo prompted at the curse.
"They've moved the conference. THRUSH must have concluded that with your escape the site was compromised, and moved the location of the conference."
Solo considered that for a moment, and then sighed. "Well, hell. Sorry about that."
Illya shrugged. "It couldn't be helped. The alternative was not acceptable."
"Thanks. So what now?"
"I should check in."
"They'll just tell us to come home."
They looked at each other for a long moment, possibilities and options clear. Illya looked away first. "I'll go call in."
"What's the hurry?"
Solo's voice stopped him in his tracks. He turned. "No hurry."
"We're not entirely sure they're all gone, are we?
"Ninety percent, I'd say."
"We should do a thorough check, though, just to be sure." Eyes bright, alive with humor, and . . . something else.
Illya nodded slowly. "True. And we should put away all of the things we used. And I should remove the surveillance devices. No point in wasting them."
"'Conservation of resources is the hallmark of a good UNCLE agent,'" Solo quoted from the lecture they'd clearly both received at orientation. "Besides, they might've left a clue as to where they've gone."
"True," Illya agreed, though it was highly unlikely. What was the point of abandoning one location for another if you were going to leave clues behind?
"Let's go, then."
It took them about an hour, working methodically, to search the castle and remove and store all of the surveillance devices. While Illya irritably yanked wires loose in the Grand Solar, Solo went to the room's sole window and opened it, looking down.
"Illya, there's no ledge there."
"And it's got to be at least a two-hundred foot drop straight down the side of a mountain."
Solo came over to stand next to him, taking one of Illya's hands in his, examining it minutely.
"What are you doing?" Illya asked, trying to free himself.
Solo let go and reached for the other one, turning his wrist upward to the light, stroking a finger up and down the flesh. "Looking for the suction cups. Or spinarets."
"What are you nattering on about?" Illya grumped, pulling his hand away, far too aware of the touch of Solo's fingers on the sensitive skin of his inner arm.
"For you to stay out there for three hours in the rain means you have to either be The Fly, or Spiderman."
It took Illya a moment to place the reference, and then his eyebrows shot up. "You read comic books?"
Solo grinned. "Guilty. So, which is it?" He took Illya's chin in his fingers and turned his head first one way and then the other. "You certainly have the jaw to be a super-hero."
Illya twitched himself free. "I told you, I was a gymnast."
"Darn. And here I thought I'd found out your secret," Solo purred.
Their gazes met again. Illya swallowed hard, and then turned away to finish his work. He felt Solo's eyes on him for several more moments before he returned to the window to close it, without further comment. For his own peace of mind, he decided it was time to contact Command. Predictably, once he did so, he was told to bring Solo to the Lisbon office immediately if not sooner. Solo grumbled a bit about having to hike down at nearly midnight to where Illya had hidden the car, but it was good-natured.
Halfway into their five-hour drive they stopped in Coimbra to break their fast with coffee and rolls which improved both of their moods and Illya's driving considerably. On arrival in Lisbon, Solo was whisked away to be examined, debriefed, and then rendered up unto Alexander Waverly as was his due.
According to the agent who took Illya's report, the Old Man himself had come to Lisbon to claim his not-so-fair-haired boy. Illya was dismissed after giving his report, and he took himself off to find a guest-house and a good eight hours' sleep before he was on the road again for the twenty hour drive it would take to get back to England.
* * *
Illya heard the crisp tread of bootheels stop in the corridor outside his cell, and tried not to tense, because he knew tensing would make things worse. He wrapped his numbed fingers more securely around the chains to his manacles, because that allowed him to take some of the weight from his wrists and shoulder joints. He heard the key in the lock, and closed his eyes, waiting for it to start, as it always started.
"Well, this is a fine mess you've gotten yourself into," a voice said, an amused, chocolatey baritone that he knew he should know. "What am I going to do with you my dear Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya finally recognized the voice. Impossible. He strained to look over his shoulder to confirm what his ears told him. The movement made his fingers slip, and he dropped the length of the chains, wrenching his arms. He managed to keep the scream inside, except for a faint, whining exhale that became a name. "Solo?"
Solo swore softly, and arms wrapped around his thighs, bracing him, taking his weight, boosting him upward. "Can you grab them again?"
Illya nodded, and strained, and managed to catch the chains once more.
"Good. That's it. Now hold on, I need just a minute or two."
He nodded again, not trusting his voice. He closed his eyes again, focusing on his fingers, on keeping them strong and steady. The sound of metal scraping concrete impinged on his thoughts, and he realized Solo was moving the cot from the other side of the cell. Another moment, and hands touched his ankles, guiding his feet to a solid purchase on the cot.
"There. That's better." The mattress gave slightly and he froze, afraid it would tip, but it didn't. Solo's fingers touched his briefly, then he heard the faint metallic scratching sound of a pick in a lock. Seconds later the cuff on his left wrist sprang open and his arm fell to his side, deadweight. A few more seconds, and the right was free as well, and deprived of the prop the manacles had become, his body crumpled forward.
He heard Solo's boots hit the floor, felt himself caught and eased down to sit on the cot instead of hitting the hard floor. Not that it mattered. He was in agony anyway, fire coursing up and down his arms, across his shoulders, knives stabbing at his joints. He felt fingers on his chin, lifting his face.
"Illya? Illya, look at me."
He did, focusing on Solo's gaze, serious and intent. Noticing for the first time that his eyes were not brown, but a rich dark hazel.
"Can you walk?"
Whether or not he could, he had to. He had to get out of this place before THRUSH managed to break him. He forced his neck to move, his head to nod, and tried to put his hands on the cot to push himself to his feet. A whimper forced itself past his teeth as he fell back, his head knocking against the wall. He barely felt it, the discomfort subsumed, eaten whole by pre-existing pain.
"God damn them," Solo muttered. "Illya, do you trust me?"
The gaze that met his was steady. Did he trust Solo? "Yes," he managed to whisper, closing his eyes for a moment against the dizziness that admission cost him.
"I'm sorry, but it will be better this way."
At that, Illya opened his eyes again, and saw the barrel of Solo's weapon lift, aiming at him. A strange feeling of calm suffused him. It was better this way. As the saying went, dead men told no tales. He nodded, and closed his eyes to make it easier for Solo. He knew it was hard to kill a man when you were looking in his eyes.
The hiss of the silencer was like a benison.
* * *
Illya's first emotion on returning to consciousness was a sense of outrage. He had been so certain there was no afterlife that he was offended by the notion he'd been wrong. Then the pain in his shoulders and elbows and wrists reasserted itself and his second emotion was also outrage. That he should have to bear that pain in the afterlife, after everything he'd done for the cause of Good, seemed manifestly unfair. Although really, he knew better than to think life, or death, was fair.
Something soft and moist and warm touched the back of his neck, once, twice, three times, each time higher, a fleeting pressure, and his name was whispered quietly, regretfully. A moment later strong, fingers began to probe his shoulders, merciless as they worked his flesh, provoking shocks of sharper pain. He wrenched himself away, rolling over, opening his eyes.
The afterlife looked peculiarly like a shabby hotel room, and the demon who tortured him was curiously familiar.
"Napoleon?" he asked incredulously, his voice hoarse and rasping.
The smile that brought was bright enough to hurt his eyes. "It's about time you stopped calling me Solo."
"You shot me," Illya said, trying to understand how he could be alive, how Napoleon could have missed from point-blank range.
Napoleon held up a small feathered dart, like those used to tranquilize animals. "Sleep dart." Sudden dismay wrinkled his brow. "My God! You didn't really think I was going to kill you?"
Illya nodded, confused, and winced as the motion sent fire licking along his nerve endings. Napoleon stared at him, openmouthed, aghast.
"And you just let me?"
"Better you than them," Illya said, pragmatically. "Where did you get the dart?"
Solo was still frowning. "The new Special's been modified to take either bullets or darts. Didn't you know that? I thought all the branches had them now."
"We are always the last to get new toys," Illya said. "Please, have you any morphine? Codeine? Or failing that, whiskey? Even vodka?"
Regret chased the frown from Napoleon's face as he shook his head. "Sorry, the best I can do is aspirin. But if you let me, I might be able to help." He held up his hands, wiggling his fingers.
Illya considered that. If he were back in London, they would doubtless have sent him to some musclebound fellow named Lars or Sven who would pummel him back into working order without regard for the pain it caused. Napoleon had been through it himself, Illya was sure, and surely could be no worse. "Aspirin first. Four, please."
Napoleon nodded and fetched him a glass of water and four familiar tablets, and he even put the tablets in Illya's mouth and held the glass for him as he gulped medication and water down gratefully. Putting the glass aside, Napoleon carefully eased Illya's undershirt off, and then guided him down on his belly on the lumpy mattress.
"This is going to hurt," he said apologetically.
Napoleon's touch was tentative at first, but rapidly grew more confident, and the pain grew with the confidence. Illya clenched his teeth against the sounds that wanted to come out because that was what a man did, but then Napoleon lifted a hand from his shoulder, and stroked his hair.
"You don't have to keep quiet. If it was me, I'd be bawling like a baby."
The hand on his hair was, in its own strange way, more painful than the one on his back. A sound escaped him, choked, taut. Napoleon's fingers slid comfortingly over his hair once more before returning to his back. He had too much pride to scream, but the occasional moan or groan didn't seem to be too great a betrayal, because Napoleon knew what it was like. And if the sheets beneath his face were a little damp, no one knew that but him.
After a while Napoleon moved to straddle his thighs so it was easier to work on his back, and Illya tensed at the unmistakable pressure of an erection against his backside, but Napoleon's hand returned to his hair, stroking, soothing.
"Relax, Illya. If you'd trust me to kill you, surely you can trust me with this."
There was something to that. He relaxed, and Napoleon kept working. It didn't hurt as badly as it had before, and his mind started to work again. He remembered the shock he'd felt at hearing Napoleon's voice in the cell, and had to ask. "Isn't Antwerp a little off the beaten path for you?"
"Ours is not to question why," Napoleon quipped, but then a moment later he went on, his voice more serious. "Actually, I was working in Brest when I heard you'd gone missing. Since I was in the neighborhood, it seemed like a good opportunity to return a favor."
That almost made sense until Illya really thought about it. "Brest is nearly nine hundred kilometers from Antwerp."
"Exactly. Right next door, so to speak."
"If you have very large doors."
Napoleon tsked. "You Europeans think everything is so far away. You'll get over that once you come to the States."
"If I come to the States," Illya corrected.
"When," Napoleon re-corrected. "Now hush, you're breaking my concentration."
It was easier not to think, so Illya let himself be hushed. The pain lessened gradually, fading half-dead embers instead of active flames. He found himself yawning. Napoleon got off of him and pulled a blanket over him, patting his shoulder.
"That's better. You're safe here, go on to sleep. Things will be better in the morning."
Strangely, Illya did feel safe, something he very rarely experienced. Turning onto his side, he let himself drift off.
* * *
Things were better in the morning. Illya woke up refreshed and mostly functional, the pain diminished to a dull nagging ache that only escalated if he moved unwisely. Napoleon was gone, but a small table held a vacuum flask of coffee, a bottle of aspirin, a bag of fresh pastries, and a note informing him in a slightly difficult-to-decipher scrawl that while Napoleon had been obligated to return to Brest to complete his mission, Illya was in the Brussels safehouse being guarded by a couple of local agents. He was also to report back to London as soon as he could after waking.
Poking his head out of the door, Illya confirmed the information and dismissed his minders once they had handed over a change of clothing, a new communicator, the keys to a car, and most importantly, a weapon. A weapon of a quite different design from his previous one, supplied with two types of magazineĖ one loaded with bullets, the other with now-familiar darts. The Brussels agents had been more than a bit jealous.
He studied it for a while, discovering how the different magazines fit, and finding the tiny lever that changed it over from one function to the other. He wished he had access to a shooting range so he could sight it in, though if he did have to use it, it wouldn't be the first time he'd had to learn a new weapon on the fly. He put in the bullet magazine, just a little more comfortable with that familiarity.
Fortunately the drive back to London was uneventful. He checked in at HQ where he was debriefed, given the expected psych evaluation, and then sent down to Medical where he was poked, prodded, and told to go home and report back in twenty-four hours. It would have seemed a kindness if he hadn't known they needed the time to go over the results of his evaluation to determine whether or not he'd been compromised while in THRUSH hands.
He stopped at the market on the way home and bought a few things to replenish what had undoubtedly gone bad in his absence, and spent a little time clearing the spoiled food out of the icebox once he reached his flat. That done, he made himself a sandwich and coffee, and finally took a hot bath to rid himself of the smell of fear and pain that still clung to him.
Unfortunately the predictability of mundane tasks didn't help. Even after his bath when he tried to relax with a book, he still felt restless and unsettled, his mind repeatedly drifting back to the feel of Napoleon's hands on him, the feeling of Napoleon's thighs against his own, the press of his cock, and that odd sensation against the back of his neck that sometime during the drive back he'd finally identified as kisses. Very disconcerting.
And then there was the whole shooting thing.
He got up and poured himself another cup of coffee and this time dosed it liberally with whiskey before settling back into his chair to stare blankly at the tiny garden his landlady kept out back, taking occasional sips.
Why had he let Napoleon do that? There was only one answer. He trusted him. Past all good sense, apparently. But . . . why did he trust him? He'd met the man once. Yes, they had spent the better part of two days together, and they clearly found one another sexually attractive, but was that any reason to trust him? No.
Perhaps he had been influenced by everything he'd heard about Napoleon Solo over the years. Though he was sure much of it wasn't true, he'd heard so much he'd almost felt as if he knew the man before they'd ever met. Which could have explained part of his trust, however he had heard just as much about Gerald Strother and he didn't trust him so far as he could throw him. Which, granted, was probably a fair distance. Still, it rather negated his theory.
Back to square one.
A tap at the door brought him to his feet, coffee sloshing over his hand. It wasn't rent day, and he wasn't expecting anyone. Since his recent unplanned visit to THRUSH had begun similarly he was more than a little leery of unannounced visitors. He picked up his new gun and quickly swapped out the bullet magazine for the dart one, flicked the function lever and took off the safety before going to stand to one side of his door.
"Who is it?" he called warily.
"Your knight in shining armor. Okay, well, Brooks Brothers, and I'm not technically a knight, but I did rescue you."
The voice was unmistakable and he drew a breath of relief. He took a glance through the peephole in the door and saw that Napoleon appeared to be alone, but knowing that the field of vision was limited he was still cautious as he unlocked his door and opened it, gesturing the other agent into the room with his gun.
Napoleon stepped inside, hands lifted, fingers curled in an exaggerated and slightly ridiculous fashion. "Turnabout is fair play? I shoot you, you shoot me?"
Illya checked the hallway, closed the door and bolted it, then lowered the gun. "Just making sure you're alone. I thought you were going to Brest."
"I did. All done there. Caught the next flight over."
"Are you following me?"
"Actually, yes. We need to talk." He sniffed the air. "Do I smell coffee?"
Illya waved him further into the flat and holstered the gun. "Yes. Come on."
Once they were both settled at his small kitchen table with fortified coffees, Illya took the bull by the horns. "What do we need to talk about?" He braced himself for the answer, sure it was going to be a proposition of some sort.
"You told me you put in an application for a transfer to Northwest. Were you serious?"
It took a moment for that to sink in, since it was so manifestly not what he'd been expecting. Finally he nodded. "Yes."
"Ah, about five months ago, why?"
Napoleon frowned. "When I got back home after our last little encounter, I spent some time in the administrative office looking through our applicant and transfer files. I went back a year. There was no transfer application from anyone named Illya Kuryakin."
Illya stared at him blankly. "You went back a year?"
"A year plus a little, actually.Nothing. Nada. Zilch."
"But I saw it stamped in when I gave it to Margery, and watched her put it in the packet for . . ."
". . .Berlin." Napoleon finished his sentence. "All transfer applications have to be approved by divisional HQ before being forwarded on. Someone held yours out."
Illya had to let go of his cup before he broke it. "Beldon," he said flatly.
"He doesn't want you to leave. You're too useful to him here."
It made sense. Too much sense. Except. . . "Why didn't he just disapprove the transfer?"
"Because then you'd have re-filed it. And kept doing it until he had to approve it, or you'd quit. This way, you'd think Northwest just didn't want you. You wouldn't re-file, you'd stay right where he wants you."
And that was exactly what he had thought. The implied rejection had rankled, but he'd managed to convince himself it was simply anti-Soviet paranoia. Apparently not. "Then I am trapped," he said after a moment, anger mixing with disappointment in his belly.
Solo wagged a finger at him. "Now, now. You don't seem like a quitter to me. Have you ever watched American football?"
Illya blinked, puzzled by the non sequitur. "Ah, no."
"Thought not. See, there's this little play, it's called an 'end run,' where the guy with the ball sneaks around behind the guys trying to take it away from him."
"In other words, a maneuver in which impediments are bypassed by trickery?"
"I knew you were a bright boy. All you have to do is fill out a new transfer application, send it to me special delivery, and I'll put it on the Old Man's desk."
"The problem remains that without Beldon's approval, it's little more than scrap paper."
"Not at all. Mr. Waverly will see there's no signature, which will make him curious, and a little cranky, because it means he has to investigate. He'll call Beldon and ask why it's not signed, and Beldon will either have to 'fess up, or make up an excuse. Either way, Mr. Waverly knows you're interested."
"He'll know you put it there."
"So? I have the good of the organization at heart."
Illya gazed at him narrowly. "And is that all?"
Napoleon sat back, regarding him thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I get your drift."
"What must I do to earn this favor?"
There was honest confusion on Napoleon's face for a moment, and then his jaw dropped. Literally. When he closed his mouth his jaw was tight and his lips thinned. He pushed himself away from the table and stood up. "Thank you for the coffee, Mr. Kuryakin. I can see myself out."
Illya realized instantly that he'd just made a grievous tactical error. He stood up. "Wait."
Three-quarters of the way to the door, Napoleon paused and looked back at him, eyes narrowed and angry. "Why?"
"I. . . I am sorry."
Napoleon didn't move, but he lifted his eyebrows, clearly prompting more.
Illya wasn't sure what more he wanted. An explanation, perhaps? "Last night . . . and before. . ." He stopped at the further narrowing of Napoleon's eyes, and began again with a sigh. "Forgive me, Mr. Solo. I am suspicious both by nature and instruction. In my experience, the only people who give something for nothing are family, and even then, perhaps not. I see that this is not . . . your experience as well. I regret that I impugned your honor."
He counted the time that Napoleon stood there unmoving in heartbeats, and finally after forty-eight of them, one corner of the other man's lips quirked upward.
"'Impugned my honor?'" Napoleon asked, making an odd gesture with the first two fingers of both hands. "For God's sake, did you learn English by reading Jane Austen novels?"
Warmth flared across Illya's face and he looked away. "In part."
Napoleon coughed. "That explains a lot. Okay, let's just start over. And just for the record, I know quite a bit about not getting something for nothing myself, so I understand why you might be suspicious. Let me put my cards on the table; I want a partner. I want a good partner, someone I can work with, someone I can trust. I've been through the roster at Northwest, and no one clicked. You . . . click, Mr. Kuryakin." He looked a little puzzled as he said it.
"Illya," he prompted, suddenly realizing that he wasnít the only one experiencing a totally unfounded sense of trust in someone he barely knew. Solo wouldnít have come here if he hadnít. Wouldnít have checked those files.
Solo smiled, for real this time. "Illya. Now, I know it wouldn't be something that would happen right off the bat after you transfer, there would be the usual break-in period, but I'm willing to wait, if you're interested."
"I am," Illya said firmly.
"Good. I hoped you would be. I think we work well together."
"At the least we seem to rescue one another quite well."
That got him a chuckle. "That we do. That's what partners are for. I have to get back to New York by tonight, so fill out that application and get it to me and we'll see if we can't get this show on the road."
"It will be in the packet to New York tomorrow."
"Good. Oh, and about that elephant in the room we're pretending not to notice. As you so cautiously put itĖ 'last night, and before. . .'"
Illya tensed. "Yes?"
Napoleon stepped closer, well inside his space, and while not angry, his expression was definitely serious. "I want there to be no question about this. Yes, I find you attractive, and I had thought . . ." He stopped himself, shook his head. "But that's beside the point. The point is that sex isn't and will never be, a requirement for working with me, or for anything we do together. Who and what you sleep with is your call, not mine. I have more than enough willing partners. I don't need or want an unwilling one. Are we clear?"
"We are," Illya said, equally serious. "Thank you."
"Any time. Now, I have another plane to catch. I'll look for that application from you."
Illya nodded, and this time, escorted him to the door. Napoleon stepped into the hallway, and just as he got to the stairway, Illya called out: "By the way, Napoleon. . . you did not think incorrectly."
Solo turned, missed the first step, and barely caught himself by the bannister. After a long moment of locked gazes, he muttered "Maybe I should reconsider this idea, if you're going to have me falling head over. . ." he stopped mid-sentence, looking stricken, and then shook his head. "God. I am in so much trouble."
Illya smiled. "I suspect we both are."
Solo gave him a rueful smile and cocked a finger at him like a gun. "I suspect you're right."
A moment later Napoleon was out of sight, and Illya heard the front door open and close. Still smiling, he closed his own door and locked it.
* * *
"You," Illya said, stepping into Napoleon's apartment as he gave the other agent a dark look, "should be a used car salesman. Or perhaps insurance agent. Some profession where one charms the customer into buying something without reading the fine print or checking under the bonnet."
Napoleon endeavored to look innocent as he held out his hand for Illya's jacket. "What do you mean?"
"You neglected to inform me that the 'break in period' you mentioned wasn't just a matter of days or weeks."
"Oh, that." Napoleon turned and hung his jacket in the closet and then turned back. "Drink?"
"Yes. Scotch." Belatedly recognizing the bottle on the bar as an American blend, he added; "On the rocks, please. Be generous." He followed Napoleon to the bar set up on a sideboard, automatically noting the position of the ugly houndstooth-check sofa that looked eerily like the one in his own apartment, and the leather wing chair and lamp table that were not at all familiar. There was a desk and chair, a few items of decoration, and a very nice view of the city skyline. "I must say, this has been an effective way to teach me not to make a deal with the devil. Next time I will be more careful." And someday he would find a way to repay Napoleon.
"Be careful who you call the Devil. The system was Mr. Waverly's idea, from start to finish." Napoleon put two ice cubes in an old-fashioned glass and poured four fingers of scotch over it, then held it out.
"Thank you, and I know." Illya took the drink and swallowed half of it in one gulp.
Napoleon's scheme had worked, and Beldon's hand had been forced. He'd approved Illya's transfer because he had no choice, but he hadn't been gracious about it. Apparently suspecting Napoleon had somehow been involved in his defeat, he had deliberately delayed the approval as long as he could, waiting until Napoleon had been sent on a long-term mission. Illya had arrived in New York to find no Napoleon in evidence, and a nasty surprise regarding his new assignment.
That first day he'd been ushered, culture-shocked and jet-lagged, into Alexander Waverly's office, where he had learned that Mr. Waverly felt it was a good idea for everyone to know a little something about the day-to-day operations of the organization. To that end, he had cooked up a bizarre initiation scheme in which all newly transferred personnel spent time working their way through the Sections from bottom to top, one month at a time, though for security reasons you could only go as high as the section you were ultimately transferring into.
At least that part made sense. Sending a file clerk out into the field would be a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately since Illya would ultimately be in Section Two, that meant he had to go through six other sections before he reached his goal. He'd swallowed his protests and set to work. If that was what it took, then he would do it, and well. Along the way he'd discovered that not all Americans were as accepting of the concept of a Soviet agent as Napoleon was. There had been no really overt hostility, but neither had he been welcomed with open arms.
Napoleon motioned him to a seat on the couch, taking the leather chair himself. "I'd hoped to be here when you transferred over, but the job had other plans."
"We go where we are sent, and we do what we must," Illya said fatalistically. "I understood."
"Donít we just," Napoleon said with a grimace. "How've you been settling in while I was gone?"
Illya knew he'd been away on assignment for the past nine weeks. It had been a common topic of conversation, or rather, complaint, amongst his female co-workers. To his surprise, office gossip had barely alerted him to Napoleon's successful return from his mission when a note inviting him to dinner with Napoleon arrived, along with a fulminating glare from the young woman who delivered it. Apparently she would have preferred the invitation be extended to her. He'd been hard put not to laugh at her disgruntlement.
He made himself comfortable on Napoleon's familiar couch-- he had one just like it in his own apartment-- and sighed. "Research and Design was no problem. I was good there, and they didn't want me to go when their month was up. Section Seven, however, was another matter." He took a smaller sip of his drink, relishing the burn on the way down. "Apparently I was not a good fit in Public Relations."
Napoleon chuckled. "I heard about that. I still didn't know how they managed to convince Mr. Waverly to cut your month in Section Seven to eleven days."
"I neither know, nor care, so long as they achieved their goal."
"And now? How's Section Six?"
"Security and Personnel is all right," he hedged. If only in comparison to Public Relations. Detraining agents gave him uncomfortable flashbacks to his pre-UNCLE days, and working as an aide in Medical gave him the willies. He hated the smell of hospitals. They smelled too much like high-tech torture chambers.
Napoleon made a face. "I hated working in Medical. The smell . . . makes me think of things I'd rather not think about."
Illya stared at him in surprise, and nodded slowly. "Exactly. But I thought you had always worked here at Northwest."
"I have, but I was still Mr. Waverly's first guinea pig for his new transfer system," Napoleon explained, correctly interpreting Illya's question. "He wanted someone he already knew to go through it first."
"Ah." Illya tried to imagine Napoleon in the lab, and failed, though he had probably done quite well in Public Relations.
"Feel better now?" Napoleon asked with a grin.
Oddly, he did. "At least I know you understand."
"Absolutely." He finished off his drink and sat forward, hands on his knees. "Are you hungry?"
"When am I not?"
That made Napoleon chuckle. "Excellent. Iíll start dinner."
Napoleon cooked steaks out on the fire escape on a tiny Japanese cast-iron stove. Once ready, they were accompanied by salads of crisp, bland iceberg lettuce and nearly-as-bland sliced tomatoes, fortunately livened by a decent vinaigrette. There were also some small oval potato . . . things that came out of a box in Napoleonís icebox and were then baked in the oven. They were peculiar, but really quite good. Illya thought he could remember to look for ĎTater Totsí next time he was at the market.
The meal was washed down with a Portuguese red that made Illya think of their first meeting, and afterward there was coffee and a chocolate layer cake Napoleon had bought at a bakery down the street. When they'd finished dessert and cleaned up the kitchen, there was an awkward silence as they gazed at one another. Illya felt his pulse pick up, fully expecting Napoleon to make a pass at him, which, truth be told, wouldn't be in the least unwelcome.
As their eyes held for a moment, Napoleon's tongue flicked out to moisten his lips, then suddenly he looked away, and shook his head a little. "Care for a game of chess?" he asked nonchalantly.
Napoleon had an uncanny ability to disconcert him. "Certainly," he managed to respond, with what he hoped was equal nonchalance.
"Good. I'll set up the board."
They played three games, and it was after midnight when Illya left for home. He could have taken a taxi, but he felt peculiarly restive so he walked instead. Two blocks away from Napoleon's place, he realized why he was restive and let out a snort of amusement that startled a couple walking the other direction. He'd expected to have sex, and hadn't. Of course he felt restive.
It annoyed him faintly that it had been Napoleon who had redirected their energies to a more mental level. It should have been himself. It was obvious that until he was firmly settled in Section Two and officially partnered with Napoleon, they should avoid anything that might cause concern or draw accusations of favoritism. To give in to simple desire would be extremely ill-advised.
Knowing that didn't make him any less restive. When he got home, he indulged in a long, hot shower and took care of that restiveness, carefully not fantasizing about Napoleon as he did so.
* * *
Illya was reading through his daily allotment of mission reports when the phone on the desk next to him rang. He picked it up. "Kuryakin."
"Illya, could you please come to the infirmary? I know you've moved on to Section Five, but I could really use a hand. I've got a patient who won't stay put and I need someone who can make him, and all I have in here today are my regular duty nurses and with this patient they're no use at all."
"Of course, Dr. Prejean, I'll be right there." Illya closed the file, put it back on the stack, and headed down to the infirmary. The request was a godsend, since he was unbelievably bored. Besides, he didn't mind helping her out, she and the nurses had been kind to him. They'd understood his instinctive aversion to medical paraphernalia, even told him it was endemic among his fellow agents. They all knew how easily the tools of medicine could be perverted into implements of torture. Because of that, they hadn't scheduled him to work there very often, only once a week, and usually at the desk, rather than in the ward. He could repay that favor now.
Barbara Mason was at the reception desk when he arrived. She looked somewhat the worse for wear, her neat white uniform buttoned askew, her cap missing, and her usually tidy chignon half-unpinned, strands of auburn hair curling softly around her face. It struck him that she ought to do that on purpose; it was very attractive.
"I hear I'm needed," he said.
She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. "You can say that again. In back, room two."
He moved past her, through the doors that led to the ward, and heard the commotion before he saw it. Three female voices, one male, and the male voice was very, very familiar. He pushed open the door to room two, and found, as he'd expected, Napoleon there, along with Dr. Prejean, and the other two regular nurses, Emily Martino, and Denise Shay.
Both nurses were in states similar to Barbara's, and Napoleon wore only an undershirt and trousers. He held a nurses' cap in each hand. Dr. Prejean was holding a medical chart in front of her chest like a shield, and her lab-coat sleeve had been torn. She saw him, and relief lit her face.
"Illya, thank God! Could you please do something about him?"
Napoleon tried to coax one of the nurses into coming closer by holding out her cap as bait, calling her much as one would a cat. "Here, Emmy, Emmy, Emmy!"
"What's wrong with him?" he asked, though he was fairly sure he knew. Napoleon's pupils were hugely dilated, and his speech was slurred.
"He's drugged. I suspect it's a new veridical, but it's got, um, strange side effects. At least I think they're side effects. I can't think why anyone would do it on purpose. Well, I mean, not for a spy anyway, and certainly not for Napoleon. Some THRUSH bimbo dumped him on the doorstep of the tailor shop like this. He's, ah, a little amorous." Her gaze dipped as she glanced at Napoleon, and she flushed.
Illya followed her gaze, saw what was making her blush, and managed to refrain from licking his lips.
"I figured it would be better if I got a man down here to help," the doctor continued. "Since he's not going to try to molest another guy."
That almost made him laugh, but he caught himself just in time. What she didn't know, she should continue to not know. "I'll see what I can do," he said drily. "Why don't the three of you leave him to me? I think he'll be calmer if you're not here. Where do you want him?"
"In bed." She motioned the nurses out, and followed them, pausing in the doorway. "Illya, I need a blood sample, do you know how to get one?"
She nodded, unsurprised by that fact. "Good. The supplies are on the tray. Once you've got the sample, there's a sedative in the full syringe, but I need the blood first, uncontaminated by anything of ours."
Illya nodded his understanding, and she left, closing the door behind her. Napoleon dropped the nurses' caps to the floor with a sigh and stared forlornly at the door.
"All the pretty pussies are gone," he mourned.
"Don't let them hear you call them that or you'll never get another date."
Napoleon eyed him speculatively. "The pussies are gone, but they left the tiger behind."
Illya rolled his eyes. "Please don't be trite, Napoleon. Sit down on the bed."
"Because I need to get a blood sample."
"Are you four years old? Just do it."
"What will you give me if I do?"
"What will you give me if I don't?"
Napoleon frowned. "You're no fun today."
"No, I'm not," he agreed, putting his hands on Napoleon's shoulders and pressing him back toward the bed. "Now sit down."
Napoleon sat, but as he did he reached up and pulled Illya's face down to his until their lips met. Shocked, Illya allowed it for a moment, surprised by how unexpectedly soft Napoleon's lips were, then he came to his senses and jerked away. "Stop it!" he hissed. "They're probably watching."
Napoleon smiled wickedly. "They can watch, if they want. They can even come play too."
Exasperated, Illya unwound Napoleon's arms from around his neck. "We are not going to have an orgy in the infirmary."
"No." Curious about the drug's potential veridical effects, he decided he ought to investigate a little. "What is your name?"
"Your real name."
"Napoleon Solo," Napoleon repeated.
Sure it was. "All right, if you say so. What is my name?"
"Don't you remember?"
Illya snorted. An interrogator trying to question someone in this state would end up strangling his subject out of sheer frustration. "Give me your arm."
"I can't. It doesn't come off." Napoleon giggled.
With a pained sigh, Napoleon held out his arm. Illya pushed up his undershirt sleeve and tied the length of rubber tubing around his upper arm. He made quick swab across the target area with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, and then slipped the needle into the prominent vein on the inside of the elbow, untying the tubing once he'd done that. After the syringe had filled he set it on the tray and pressed the cotton ball against Napoleon's arm until he was sure the bleeding had stopped, then he turned to pick up the second syringe.
"You've got a light touch for a killer."
Illya stiffened, but otherwise refused to acknowledge the words. He tapped the syringe, checking for bubbles, and pressed the plunger until a bead of liquid appeared at the tip of the needle. Napoleon's hand wrapped around his forearm caressingly.
"It's the drug," Illya said, eased the needle home and administered the sedative. "There now. Sleep."
Napoleon nodded, eyelids already drooping. "Nice bedside manner, doc."
Illya eased him down against the mattress, lifting his feet onto the bed and tucking them under the sheets. He watched him for a moment, noting how strangely unhappy Napoleon looked in sleep. It bothered him. He'd always thought people were supposed to look peaceful and content when they slept.
The door opened, and Dr. Prejean stepped into the room. "Good work."
He shrugged. "Your sample is on the tray."
"I know. I saw. Did he . . . it looked like . . . I mean, from outside, it kind of looked like he kissed you."
Illya smirked at her. "Right now Napoleon would probably kiss Mr. Waverly if he came close enough. Whatever he was given doesn't seem to be much of a veridical, but apparently it's a very effective aphrodisiac. Just think, if one could isolate the compound responsible, one could probably make a fortune."
As he'd planned, she looked thoughtful and turned to pick up the blood sample from the tray, completely distracted from what she'd seen.
"May I go now?" he prompted.
She nodded. "Yes, thank you very much. You've been a terrific help. I've rarely seen Napoleon so cooperative with anyone, even when he's not drugged."
"I am at your service any time." He let himself out, nodded at Barbara, Emily, and Denise, and returned to his cubicle to finish reading his files. After the third time he caught himself running his tongue across his lower lip, unconsciously searching out Napoleon's taste there, he went and got a coffee from the commissary to make sure he couldn't find it.
* * *
The only things keeping Illya from going stir crazy were his frequent meals and chess matches with Napoleon. Napoleon had even brought him an ugly, cubist-looking carved onyx chess set when he came back from a mission to Mexico. That meant there was a set at both his own apartment, and Illya's, so wherever they ended up, they could sublimate their attraction into a different sort of play.
So far it was working well enough, though Illya somewhat envied Napoleon his stable of lovelies who were willing to provide him with an outlet that Illya didn't have. Some of the girls he worked with seemed interested, but none of them were the sort you could just take home to bed-- they were the sort you took home to mother, and he wasn't going anywhere near that. He needed to meet some, what did Napoleon call them? Bad girls.
Communications and Intelligence wouldn't have been difficult except that apparently people liked his accent and would call in just to chat. He really wasn't much for chatting, plus it annoyed his supervisor. Filing was dull, but not difficult, but when they switched him to research he'd felt much more at home. All those years of schooling had taught him to be a meticulous researcher. There had been a few complaints about his work being too thorough, which he felt was nonsense. It wasn't his fault that some lazy people wanted one page and he'd given them ten.
By the time he got to Enforcement and Intelligence he finally got to carry a gun again, but he was still little more than a glorified security guard. Though after all his years in UNCLE it was good to finally understand why 'Intelligence' overlapped sections Three and Four. It was a matter of security clearances. Unclassified work went to Section Four, and classified work went to Section Three.
Three was ultimately the most frustrating section, though, because he was so close to being where he needed to be, but it was still just out of reach. Watching Napoleon go out on assignments while he was kept behind made him feel like a puppy being paper trained. He was a field agent, damn it. He was supposed to be in the field. Part of his indoctrination was a daily allotment of old field reports to read so he could get a feel for how things were done in this part of the world. A good many of the reports he was reading were Napoleon's. It was a wonder the man was still alive. He took insane risks. No wonder he wanted a good partner.
Which Illya would be, if they would just let him.
If he hadn't seen other transferred operatives going through the same exercise he would have suspected that the whole scheme was some sort of punishment for agreeing to Napoleon's 'end run,' but it was just the way things worked here in Northwest. Looking back on his experiences he couldn't say they had been entirely wasted. Certainly next time he was tempted to snap at one of the researchers for taking too long to get him information on Outer Morbidistan or someplace equally obscure he would think twice about it. Nor would he get irritated at a file clerk for not being able to find a file which someone else had most likely misfiled because there did not seem to be any written procedure for how words with hyphens were to be filed and whether or not the word 'the' was actually part of the mission title or should be ignored. He'd chosen to ignore the article.
Nonetheless, he still thought that a week on each section would have been more than sufficient. Four weeks each was approaching overkill. Unfortunately he had no say in the matter.
He typed a few more lines on his most recent classified research report, and looked at the clock. Nowhere near time to go home. Not that he had anything planned after work, but he could go find dinner, and perhaps prowl the jazz and blues clubs until late. It was a Friday night, so while he knew Napoleon was in town, he also knew he'd be busy. Free weekends, when they happened, were the exclusive preserve of whoever was warming Napoleon's bed that week. Which was decidedly not him.
He snorted softly to himself, recalling Napoleon's description of the attraction between them as 'that elephant in the room we're pretending not to notice,' which remained apt. They had to ignore it. Until he finished his initiation it was risky to do otherwise. He refused to be labeled as someone who had slept his way to a position. So they had lunch whenever they were both free, drinks, dinner, and chess a couple of times a month, and Napoleon badgered Illya to get a social life and Illya twitted Napoleon about having too much of one. It balanced out.
Interestingly, Napoleon never seemed to take men to his bed, or if he did, there was not a rumor to be had about it, and since he was never reticent to name his latest conquest Illya was sure he would have noticed had there been a Joe or Jim amongst the Janes and Jennifers. Frankly, he was content that there were not. Ridiculous though it was since they had never so much as kissed without chemical assistance, he felt rather possessive of Napoleon.
Oddly, the incessant turnover of Napoleon's women bothered him not at all.
He was looking up some information in one of the classified dossiers when all hell broke loose. Alarm klaxons, lights flashing, people running about, the sound of distant gunfire. He shoved all the classified files into his desk drawer and locked it, then stood, but since he didn't want to go running off without some idea where he ought to be, he headed three doors down the hall to the communications center. A brief moment of eavesdropping netted him the words 'agent's entrance' and 'Solo.'
He considered a moment. All of his Section Three co-workers were running toward the agent's entrance. It was highly unlikely that THRUSH would have broken into the building just to hang out in what amounted to the lobby. It was much more likely that THRUSH was after the highest prize they could get: Waverly.
Finally. An opportunity.
He was up the stairs in less than a minute, using his electronic passkey to enter the secondary hallway that led to Waverly's administrative suite. As he got close, he heard three unsilenced gunshots, then a moment later the alarm cut off, so he chanced going around the corner without looking first. There was a body on the floor some three meters down the main corridor, Napoleon standing over it, holstering his weapon.
Illya scowled. How was he supposed to demonstrate that he could back Napoleon up if Napoleon took care of everything himself? They were going to have to have a little chat. Later, though, after they finished up with the current mess.
They had just started a little forensic inspection of the corpse and his accouterments when Mr. Waverly emerged from his office. When he wasn't summarily dismissed, Illya had a moment's wild hope that
he might be included on the new mission. Waverly shot that down quickly enough, and he returned to his cubicle, frustrated and wondering if his transfer was really worth the price. Ten minutes later, just as he'd settled into work again, Napoleon stuck his head around the corner, looking disgruntled.
"Well, that so-called 'briefing' was a waste of time," he said, sitting down on the edge of Illya's desk. "I could have learned as much by just reading the file on my own, without the show and tell."
Illya perked up immediately. "You want me to find more information for you?"
Napoleon nodded. "Something. Anything. I need more background. See what you can find, especially about his college years. The file says he went to Routenberg College, graduated in 1949."
"I'll see what I can do. Are you going in alone?"
Napoleon made a face. "Looks like it. I wish . . ." he sighed. "Well, you know what I wish."
"No more so than I, Napoleon. However, as the saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride."
"So would spies," Napoleon said with a broad wink. "I'm heading home to pack and get my . . . affairs in order. Come by when you find something."
Illya nodded, already putting away his current files. They could wait, Napoleon could not.
* * *
A few minutes before nine p.m., Illya stood in they foyer of Napoleon's apartment building and rang the buzzer to be let in. The return buzzer granting him admission came so promptly he figured Napoleon must be sitting right next to it. He also hadn't even bothered to ask who it was. Not very smart, even if Napoleon was expecting him. He dashed up the stairs and tried the door, finding it unlocked.
Shaking his head at Napoleonís lack of caution, he pushed through the door, tossing his coat across the back of the couch as he moved to hand his find to Napoleon, who was ensconced in his leather armchair looking very much like a gentleman at ease and not an agent preparing for a mission.
"Routenberg college yearbook, 1949, correct?" he said, proffering the book by way of greeting.
Taking a seat on the couch, Illya saw that Napoleon had put the coffee service out for him, which was nice. Though he'd be more pleased if Napoleon could actually learn to make a decent pot of coffee. Still, coffee was coffee. He poured cream into the empty cup first, to temper the acid he knew lurked in the pot, then added the coffee, hoping he had put in enough cream, since there wasn't room for more.
Around sips of coffee he gave Napoleon a rundown on what he'd missed at the office, and then followed him over to the desk as Napoleon compared the yearbook to a yellowed newspaper clipping from Vulcanís file, and zeroed in on, of course, a woman. What else?
It did seem like a reasonable plan, though, to use an old sweetheart to get to Vulcan. It was a time-honored device.
Napoleon tapped the photograph of an attractive dark-haired young woman. "Elaine May Bender, of Middletown, New York." Napoleon's gaze met his, dark eyes trusting and hopeful. "You'll find her for me?"
Illya's first instinct was to say 'of course,' but Napoleon didn't need to know that. He had to show at least some ability to resist the patented Solo charm, so he scowled theatrically. "I haven't even had dinner yet. I had to have that yearbook specially flown in and wait for the courier."
Napoleon swept a hand toward the lamp table beside his chair. "You're welcome to the rest of my snack."
Illya glanced over, took in the nature of the snack, and scowled more deeply. "I said dinner, not a snack. And what do you need with oysters, anyway? You've a mission to attend to."
"They were meant to be an appetizer for my date tonight, which, sadly, had to be cancelled. Come now, you don't want them to go to waste do you?" He moved closer and stroked the back of his index finger along the curve of Illya's throat, his expression sultry and suggestive.
For just a moment Illya swayed toward him, then he stopped himself and moved back a step, pinning his would-be partner with a sardonic look. "Do not think I don't know what you are doing, Napoleon. I will find your Miss Bender, or whatever her name is now, but in return you will bring me dinner. A real dinner. At the office. Within an hour."
Napoleon sighed. "You drive a hard bargain, my friend."
Illya shrugged."I merely look out for myself, since no one else does." He picked up his cup and finished his coffee. Napoleon looked at him oddly, so he lifted an eyebrow. "What?"
Napoleon shook his head. "Nothing."
Illya put his empty cup on the coffee tray and picked up his coat once more. "I'll see you at the office no later than ten-fifteen, with my dinner." Napoleon nodded, making a wry face. Illya grinned and opened the door. "Oh, and Napoleon?"
"Enjoy your oysters."
* * *
In the end, Waverly did cut nearly two weeks off Illya's term in Section Three, which was a huge relief even if it meant he had to go to Yugoslavia. Waverly had made it clear he was technically still interning in Section Three and only seconded to Section Two early because an agent familiar with the Eastern Bloc would be useful on a mission headed in that direction. Illya didn't care. He was working in the field again, and even better, with Napoleon, at least temporarily.
There was, of course, a girl involved, but oddly, Marion hadn't fallen for Napoleon's practiced charms. In fact, not only had Napoleon not seemed to be trying very hard to charm her, but he had virtually thrown Illya at her with both hands. That puzzled Illya a bit, since she was blonde and had very respectable breasts, twoĖ or should that be three-- of Napoleon's favorite things. The fact that those assets were offset by great legs, an impossibly tiny waist, and lushly curved hips should have made the package even more irresistible, yet resist Napoleon did.
The only thing Illya could figure was that Napoleon either thought Illya needed an outlet other than his right hand and girls were allowable, which would be annoying, or, more likely, Napoleon didn't like them quite so stubborn or quite so contrary.
He had to smile at that thought. Marion was definitely contrary. While her blue eyes were lovely, they could convey an amazing amount of disdain, and her mouth, while kissable, showed a tendency toward petulance. That amused him when it was directed at Napoleon, and annoyed him when it was directed at himself. Her jibe about his humanity had rankled a bit. He'd just been trying to do his job.
"What are you smiling about?"
The question was accompanied by a gentle finger-poke in the ribs. Illya turned his head until he could see the woman whose bed he shared, noting smugly that her lips held an upward curve, and no sign of a pout. "Are you convinced of my humanity now?" he asked.
Her hand slid down his belly to close around his cock, stroking lightly. "Maybe," she said with a thoughtful frown. "Though, from the feel of this, you could be a rock. Or maybe a tree, or..." she pushed herself up and straddled him; "Maybe a part of the furniture. A rocking chair."
He smiled, leaned his head back against the pillow, eyes closed, and let her play. It had been a long time since someone else's hand had touched him, and he was enjoying it. The best thing about Marion was that she came with no strings attached. To use a phrase he had overheard while working in Files, she was not looking for Mr. Right, but rather, Mr. Right Now. And that he could do. He'd finally found his Bad Girl. He put his knees up so she could lean back against them, and lifted his hands, palms up and flat, so she could brace herself there. After a momentary pause to guide him into her warm, wet depths, she took advantage of both with a little sigh.
"Oh, that's nice."
"Mmm," he agreed, lifting his hips. She gasped and her hands clutched at his as she was momentarily unbalanced, but she recovered quickly and laughed. "I'm wrong. You're not furniture, you're a horse!"
He smirked. "Thank you."
She rolled her eyes. "Men."
"We are," he said, shifting to get a better angle, "useful for some things."
She caught her breath and ground down against him. "Yes. Some things." A little shiver went through her and he held still, waiting her out. After a moment, she opened her eyes and winked. "You know, you're much more fun with your clothes off."
"I bet you say that to all the boys."
"Actually, I don't." She leaned down and bit his earlobe, almost hard enough to hurt. "But don't let it go to your head."
"I wouldn't dream of it." He closed his eyes for a moment, but there was really no way he could pretend that she was anyone other than who she was, so he opened them again. She didn't deserve that anyway. Still, he wasn't quite comfortable with her where she was, so he calculated angles and surfaces and force and let go of her hands to pull her down against him, twisted his hips and pushed with his heels. She yelped in surprise as he flipped them over so he was on top, her eyes were wide as he settled more firmly between her thighs. "Bucking bronco," she murmured, her hands on his shoulders, kneading like a cat.
"I don't think that is the word you meant to use," he said, and her laughter made for interesting sensations as he began to move.
Because it was the second time, he could draw it out, and she was uninhibited and gratifyingly responsive. He enjoyed pleasing her, it was a game he played well, but finally she pushed at him and shook her head.
"Enough, Illya. You now, or I won't be able to sit down tomorrow."
He gave in gracefully, closing his eyes, and if he allowed himself a very brief and ridiculous fantasy she would be none the wiser. After the sweat had dried and their breath was caught, she sighed and trailed a hand down his back.
"Won't your Mr. Solo be jealous?" she asked.
Illya lay for a long moment without moving, but finally he pushed himself up so he could look in her face. "I don't think so."
She frowned, puzzled. "Oh. I thought. . . well. Never mind, then."
* * *
It wasn't his fault that his quiet little domestic affair had run smack up against Napoleon's large, noisy international one and he'd been sent to sea to play Sancho Panza to Napoleon's Don Quixote, for whatever that had been worth. And it wasn't his fault that Napoleon couldn't seem to resist baiting the bad guys, no matter how much it rankled him to see Napoleon hurt, or how much it rankled that he wasn't able to prevent it. And it rankled even worse seeing other men put their hands on him.
He didn't care for that at all.
But there wasn't a force in the world that could stop Napoleon from mouthing off. The longer he knew Napoleon, the more he realized that was the sort of person who went to Yellowstone and fed the wildlife, just to see what would happen. Illya knew you weren't supposed to do that, knowledge garnered from watching Yogi Bear cartoons on Saturday mornings. American television was strangely mesmerizing.
Trouble drew Napoleon like a magnet. If he wasn't mouthing off to men like Captain Shark, he was flirting with black widows like Angelique.
Personally Illya couldn't imagine ever voluntarily getting that close to her. If her straw-like bleached hair and pseudo-Continental accent didnít put one off, her smug, innuendo-laden attitude and the high probability that she wore cyanide lipstick, would. He had run into Angelique once in Europe, on a mission in Trieste. She had annoyed him then, and she annoyed him even more now.
And never more so than when she gave him a mocking look over Napoleon's shoulder and lured his partner away.
Not jealous, no. He had better taste than that. But furious was not too strong a word.
And it was up to Illya to save Napoleon. Again. Of course. Even if that spider--genus loxosceles and species reclusa to be exact--wouldn't have killed him, it would have taken him out of the field and made him miserable for a good long while. Gangrenous ulcers took a long time to heal, and left very ugly scars.
And even Napoleon's exasperating fecklessness did not deserve that.
Perhaps Napoleon was just off his game.
He'd been out of sorts for weeks. Even some of the support staff had commented on it. Popular speculation around the water cooler put it down to unrequited love, or lust, depending on who was speculating, though the supposition was usually followed by expressions of disbelief. Apparently no one could imagine a romantic scenario where Napoleon Solo didn't come out on top, so to speak.
Illya could, though. It had come to him one morning as he returned home from Marionís, and though it felt a bit on the conceited side, it also made a certain amount of sense. Napoleon had been short-tempered since the first time Illya went home with Marion, and now Napoleon was making a fool of himself practically flaunting Angelique in Illya's face. Had Napoleon accused him of something from which he himself suffered?
Illya chuckled to himself, pleased with his speculation, vain as it was. 'The lovesick, the betrayed, and the jealous all smell alike.' He wondered if Napoleon had ever read any Colette. He suspected not.
* * *
Illya stared out through the bars of his cell, not really seeing anything, just staring. He needed help. It galled him to admit it, even to himself. There was no way he was getting out of this mess on his own. Worse, he was going to be the laughingstock of UNCLE once it got around, which he was sure it would, within minutes of his call. He'd manned the communications desk himself; he knew how little that came through it stayed there, other than the classified communications. The idea of putting in a distress call was simply mortifying.
With a sigh he reached for his communicator, only to stop with his hand halfway there, belatedly remembering that all of his personal possessions, other than his handkerchief, had been confiscated by the sheriff 'for safekeeping' before he'd been locked in the cell. For a moment he felt a faint stirring of panic. He was going to be locked up here for the rest of his life, no one would ever find him, how would they know to look? He would simply disappear. UNCLE would no doubt assume that THRUSH had gotten him and he had been dropped into some lake wearing concrete overshoes. Napoleon would probably be the only person to mourn, other than his family. And all the while he would be mouldering in a Maryland jail cell, or wearing an unflattering striped suit and working on a chain gang . . .
He shook himself. Ridiculous. He knew very well from watching Perry Mason that everyone got one phone call. The sheriff had even mentioned it to him before locking him in. Hunger must be making his imagination run away with him. He hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours. He had to call HQ though, he had no real choice.
Yes he did. A much better choice.
And Napoleon would keep quiet about it. He might tease Illya to his face, but he would never spread gossip about him. And Illya knew he could trust him to come through for him. He had no doubt about that at all. He looked at his watch and saw that it was nearing two in the morning. Even if he'd been out earlier, Napoleon should be home in bed by now since tomorrow was a workday. Illya stood and moved closer to the bars.
The young man sitting at a desk with this feet up, reading a Playboy magazine, didn't look up. Illya cleared his throat and tried again. "Pardon me, Sheriff?" He knew the fellow was only a deputy but flattery never hurt.
Sure enough, the deputy looked up. "You say something?"
"May I make my phone call now?"
"Now?" The kid put his magazine and his feet down and looked at his watch. "It's two in the morning!"
"Yes, I know, and the person I wish to call should be home now. May I please call?"
The kid thought about it, frowning, then shrugged. "I guess so. Sheriff Townsend did say you had a call coming." He got up and came over, picking up a phone from the unoccupied desk nearest the cell, and
dragging it over to the cell, its long black cord trailing behind it. A little maneuvering got it through the food slot in the door. Illya wondered if the young man had any idea how dangerous it was to put a potential weapon in the hands of a prisoner, even if he was behind bars. The phone cord could be used as a garotte, the handset as a bludgeon. The base unit could be taken apart and wires removed to use as lock picks or electrocution devices.
Not that he was going to do any of that. Yet. Much better to try and get out of this without damaging anyone or getting his name and photo on a Wanted list. He tucked the handset into the curve of his shoulder, held the phone with one hand and dialed with the other. Once it began to ring he moved the handset to his ear. Two and a half rings later, the phone on the other end was picked up.
Napoleon sounded a little hoarse, but alert. Coming awake fast was a trick all enforcement agents had to learn.
"Napoleon, it's Illya."
There was a pause. "What's wrong?"
Good assumption. "I'm afraid I need your assistance."
"Where are you?"
"Peach Bottom, Maryland."
"Sounds like a quaint little burg. What are you doing there?"
"Currently, occupying a jail cell."
Dead silence met his reply, lasting several second. Finally. "Jail?" Napoleonís voice had gone up a bit.
"What the he. . . heck did you do to get thrown in jail?"
"Well, primarily it was speeding."
"Primarily? Please tell me you didnít try to argue the cop out of it."
"Of course not."
Another pause. "You know, most places just give tickets for speeding. How fast were you going?"
"Not that fast. Around seventy."
"What was the posted limit?"
Illya hesitated, then decided Napoleon was going to find out in the long run anyway. "Forty-five."
"I didnít see the limit sign because I was distracted by the fireworks. One doesnít expect to see fireworks so close to the road."
"Fireworks?" Napoleon echoed.
"Yes. And then when I looked back at the road there was an animal crossing it, and I didnít want to hit it so I swerved to avoid it, which was why I ended up in the field."
"Animal? Field? Did you crash the car? Are you all right?"
Illya wished he could see Napoleon instead of just hearing him. If the situation wasnít so vexing, he suspected the look on Napoleonís face would be amusing. "I didnít exactly crash, it was more . . . driving off-road. And yes, I am perfectly fine, other than being in jail. The car will need a new oil-pan, though."
"Oil pan." Apparently Napoleon tended to repeat things when he was tired. "Right. However, as I said, most places just give you a ticket and you pay it and thatís that." Implicit in his tone was the question of why Illya hadnít just done that, which meant explaining the rest.
Illya sighed. "I couldnít pay it, since my wallet fell out of my coat in the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial when I was fighting with a THRUSH agent who tried to steal the microfilm I was delivering to the Washington office. After I explained that to the sheriff, he became concerned about a Russian national talking about microfilm and national landmarks, having no identification, and traveling armed. At that point, he decided to escort me to jail. I assumed that Mr. Waverly would prefer I not resist arrest."
Napoleon made an odd sound that Illya strongly suspected was a strangled laugh. "Ah, yeah. I think youíre right about that. Hang on, let me get my atlas." There were a few moments of quiet in which Illya heard assorted rustling sounds and drawers opening and closing, then Napoleon returned. "All right, here we go. Peach Bottom, Maryland, you said?"
More silence. "Okay, Iíll bite. You've managed to find someplace that isn't even on the map. Where is it?"
"Just south of the Pennsylvania border, near the junction of Route 1 and State Road 273."
"Okay, I should be able to find it from that. Iíll go by headquarters, tell them Iím on a job, pick up a set of replacement ID for you, and get on the road, along with my checkbook. Iíll see you soon."
"Wait, Napoleon . . ."
"If I may ask one more favor . . ."
Napoleon chuckled softly. "Donít worry. I wonít tell a soul. Believe me, Iíve had plenty of times I wished I had someone to call for help other than HQ."
The sense of relief Illya felt was profound. "Thank you."
"Youíre quite welcome. And you can call me any time. Well, any time Iím not in the field."
"You may call me as well, should you have need."
"I know, my friend, I know. Now, Iíd better get my tail in gear. I should be there in about four hours, give or take. Take it easy in the meantime. Oh, and Illya. . ."
"Don't drop the soap."
"Never mind. Bad joke, I'll explain later. I'm on my way."
The phone clicked in his ear before he could respond, and he knew Napoleon was already on his way. He found himself smiling as he hung up the phone. He looked over at the young deputy who had gone back to reading his Playboy. "I am finished now, thank you."
The deputy put down his magazine and came back over and they went through the routine of transferring the phone again. Illya wondered if he ought to warn the man about the phone's potential as a weapon, but decided it might sound too much like a threat. He was tempted to ask if he could get something to eat, but since he had no money that was probably out of the question. There was no point in fretting, in any case. Once Napoleon arrived he would be free, and he was sure he could convince him to stop for food. In the interim he had several hours to wait, so he might as well get some rest. He toed off his shoes, settled onto the narrow cot, closed his eyes, and let the drone of the jail's three electric fans lull him to sleep.
* * *
The clang and rattle of oversized keys in a large lock brought him awake and he sat up, instantly alert, to find the deputy gone, the sheriff back, and Napoleon standing behind him as he unlocked the cell.
"Hey sleepyhead," Napoleon said with his trademark smirk. "You missed all the prisoner-exchange negotiations, but youíll be happy to know Iíve reassured Sheriff Davis here that youíre on the side of the angels, and youíre free to go, though you were definitely not cheap."
Illya leaned down and picked up his shoes, untying them so he could put them on, and then tying them carefully. "I will reimburse you."
"Yes you will. And if you can't, we'll work something out." Napoleon wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. Fortunately the sheriff was behind him so it went unnoticed.
"I'm not going to apologize for locking you up," the sheriff said, looking a little defensive.
"Certainly not," Illya agreed, cutting off any further defensiveness. "I am sure, were our positions reversed, I would have done the same."
The man looked a little disappointed. Apparently he'd expected an argument. "Well, okay then. No hard feelings?"
"None whatsoever. You were simply doing your job." Illya stood up and reached for his suit coat which he'd draped over one of the crossbars, and swayed, a little dizzy.
Napoleon's hand was under his arm instantly, steadying him. "Illya?"
Illya pulled away. "I'm fine. I stood up too quickly." He proceeded to prove how fine he was by nearly walking into the cell door, but managed to convert his lapse into something that looked deliberate by roughly pushing it open wider. Perhaps he should have waited a moment longer for his head to clear.
Judging by Napoleon's narrowed eyes, his act had been less than convincing. Time for a distraction. "Come, Napoleon, if I'm free, let's go. I'd like to find a restaurant since I haven't eaten since lunch the day before yesterday."
Napoleon stared at him for a moment, then turned to glare at the sheriff. "You know, I'm pretty sure there's something in the constitution about cruel and unusual punishment. And even if there wasn't, there's such a thing as simple humanity."
Sheriff Davis flushed a dull red. "I . . . we're not used to having anyone behind bars for very long. I guess we didn't think of it."
"You didn't think of it? Something as basic as food?" Napoleon's eyes narrowed threateningly. "What kind of place is this? I've heard about how it is in these small towns, where the local law runs things with an iron fist. I've got half a mind to report this to the Governor. This is an outrage!"
Illya tugged at Napoleon's arm, trying to get him to shut up before the sheriff changed his mind and put them both in jail, but Napoleon pulled free, the very picture of righteous indignation.
"We run a clean operation here, Mr. Solo!" Davis protested. "We just never had a comm . . . er . . . Russ . . . er . . . Soviet here before. How were we to know what we should do with him?"
"You should have called UNCLE to verify his employment as soon as he told you he worked for us. That's pretty simple, isn't it? And you should have fed him. I'm definitely going to report this to Governor Tawes when we meet with him about the UNCLE security he's requested for the President's visit next month. I'm sure he'll want to know how his state law enforcement dollars are being spent."
"Look, Mr. Solo," Davis blustered, a forced smile on his face. "This is all just a big misunderstanding. Why don't I tear up those tickets, give you back your check, apologize to Mr. Kuryakin, and buy you both breakfast at Miss Victoria's Café?"
Napoleon looked at Illya. "What do you think, Illya? I still think we should report this . . ."
Illya had caught on to Napoleon's dodge about halfway through his outraged rant, and was having trouble not smiling. "Please, let us not to cause Sheriff Davis trouble. It was understandable error on his part, I am sure he did not mean to starve me." He deliberately thickened his accent and did his best to look like a fainting waif.
Davis paled. "I can have Miss Vicky pack you fellows something to take with you on your drive back, too. She makes a mighty fine fried chicken dinner. People come for her biscuits from miles around."
Napoleon pondered silently for a moment. Illya gazed at him imploringly. "Spaciba, Napoleon, I do not wish to be cause of international incident."
He saw the twitch of Napoleon's lips and for a moment worried he had gone too far, but Napoleon managed to control himself and heave a long, quiet sigh. "All right, Illya. I suppose we'll let it go this time." He turned back to the sheriff. "So, about that breakfast . . ."
* * *
Mr. Waverly's exasperation about the stamp affair had been directed squarely at Napoleon, but Illya felt like he was the one being punished when Waverly sent Napoleon out alone on his next mission. Apparently he still hadn't passed whatever test Mr. Waverly was conducting, as the old man still had not officially partnered them. Until he did, Illya was walking very, very carefully. And so was Napoleon. They were still playing chess instead of other games.
When the delay dragged on, he briefly wondered if Napoleon had told Mr. Waverly about the Peach Bottom incident, but quickly decided that Napoleon wouldnít promise not to tell, and then break that promise.
A fact for which he was grateful, considering how foolish he felt about it. He had a feeling that Napoleon was never going to let him forget that heíd assumed he would have to pay for meals while behind bars. And he never had explained that comment about soap.
The entire time Napoleon had been gone this time, he'd felt a vague sense of not-rightness which he refused to call worry. He'd been busy with his own assignment, rousting a THRUSH satrap across the river in New Jersey, but that hadn't taken long and he'd dawdled over the paperwork so he could periodically go into Communications and check on Napoleon's status. He was about to get up and go look again-- Napoleon had missed two check-ins and a third would be worrisome-- when he was summoned to Waverly's office.
He reported as requested, expecting to receive a new assignment. Instead, Waverly looked at him out from under his eyebrows with a troubled expression.
"I was under the impression that you were working for Section Two now, Mr. Kuryakin."
"I am," Illya responded, puzzled,
"Then would you mind explaining why you have spent most of the day in Communications, disturbing the Section Five personnel?"
Apparently someone had ratted him out. "I, ah, was concerned about Mr. Solo."
"Is there some difficulty of which I should be aware? An unreported injury or illness?"
"Are you subject to premonitions?"
The question startled him, and Illya opened his mouth to deny it, but couldn't, exactly. He was, sometimes. "I prefer to call them extrapolations of probability based on known variables."
He could swear the old man looked amused, though it was hard to tell with that basset-like countenance.
"I see. May I take it that you have extrapolated known variables regarding Mr. Solo's mission?"
"You might say that."
"And your conclusion?"
"After an in-depth study of his reports and observations of his habits, I would suggest that Mr. Solo should not be allowed to go on missions without backup."
Illya shook his head. "Anyone would do, so long as they are an excellent shot, and aware of his propensity for leaping before he looks." Since at the moment, if he was partnered with Napoleon, he might well strangle him for doing that, it would probably be wise to put him with someone else.
"I. . . see. Well, I'll take it under advisement." He picked up a file and began to look through it.
There had been a flicker of surprise in Mr. Waverly's eyes, and Illya wondered what had put it there, but knew better than to ask. "May I go, sir?"
Waverly looked up. "Hmm? Oh, yes, certainly. Just stay out of Communications."
Illya nodded, slightly embarrassed, and went back to his office to finish up his report. A couple of hours later Danielle came by to let him know that Napoleon had managed to get himself out of trouble and he wondered if he should have kept his mouth shut. However, the next evening as Napoleon filled him in on the getting into and out of said trouble over take-out Italian at his apartment, Illya felt vindicated.
* * *
"So, Illya," Napoleon said in that uniquely American way Illya had come to realize was usually prelude to being asked to do something he didn't particularly want to do.
Illya swallowed his bite of doughnut and looked at his friend mistrustfully. "Yes?"
"You still seeing Marion?"
Well. That was unexpected. Still wary, he shook his head. "Not at the moment." She was seeing Edmund again, or was it Teddy? Or Ben? He lost track sometimes, and it had been a while since they had talked. But occasionally, in-between her other men, she called him, because, as she put it, he was 'wonderfully uncomplicated.' By that she meant that they suited one another in bed and liked each other well enough, but neither expected more than that. It was a convenient arrangement for them both.
Napoleon sighed. "Rats."
Illya looked around the cafeteria in mock alarm. "Rats? Here? Shall we call an exterminator?"
Napoleon chuckled. "Don't play that game with me, Mr. Kuryakin. I know you too well. Rats. Darn. Dagnabbit." He drummed his fingers on the table, and then pinned Illya with his gaze. "You didn't break her heart did you?"
Illya snorted. "Unlikely, since hearts are not the body parts involved."
Napoleon's nostrils flared and his smile went a little tight. "I just meant, are you on speaking terms?"
"We are on good terms, yes. Again, why?"
"Gervaise Ravel and Mr. Bufferton have resurfaced in the Andes. We lost an agent."
"Ah." Illya put down his coffee cup untasted. He could see where Napoleon, the strategist, was going with this. "You want bait."
"For a different sort of rat-trap, yes."
"And we are the exterminators?"
"You could put it that way."
He thought about it for a moment. "She won't go for it."
"She will, if you push the right buttons," Napoleon purred, like a cat with cream.
The hell of it was, he was right. And Illya knew which buttons they were, too. He shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance. "I can ask her."
The smile Napoleon flashed him made his trousers uncomfortably tight. "I knew I could count on you."
And so he could. Damn him.
Illya didn't beat around the bush with Marion; he was honest with her. In the exact way he knew would have her leaning toward helping them, and then he capped it with the one thing he knew would tip her over the edge: a challenge to both her courage and her womanly mettle. From then on it had been Napoleon's game, in all its complicated Machiavellian glory. For a man who claimed no Italian blood, he certainly seemed a kindred spirit.
Marion had come through like a trouper, but a vague flare up of the guilt he'd thought long eradicated from his moral repertoire had kept Illya a little distant until he had no choice in the matter. It was difficult to stay distant with people shooting at you. She'd been different though, once safe and mostly sound in the plane on the way back to New York, and he knew then that she wouldn't call him again. On the surface she was still coquettish, but there was a shadow in her eyes and a brittleness in her laugh that hadn't been there before, and he regretted that.
She surprised him though, by clinging and flirting broadly when they'd arrived back at her party, and when Napoleon had asked to join the fun, she'd warned him off in no uncertain terms. It had been amusing to watch, but he'd been puzzled when she dragged him off with a broad wink. Napoleon had followed Marion's statuesque blonde friend for all of ten seconds until he thought they weren't looking any more, then he'd stopped and stood, hands in his pockets, watching them with a frown, apparently unaware that the patio doors reflected the room like a mirror and gave them quite a good view.
Marion leaned close, her lips against Illya's ear. "He's jealous," she purred, sounding amused.
Startled, Illya stared at her. She and Napoleon had been alone in that hotel room for a while, he wouldn't put it past his satyriac partner to have seduced her, though he was a little surprised that Marion had gone for it, considering how annoyed she was with both of them. For just a moment he was tempted to ask her to compare techniques, but realized that not only did he not really want to know, but that he'd probably get slapped if he did. Not quite sure how to respond, he cleared his throat. "Ah, would you like me to bow out?" he asked.
Marion gave an exasperated sigh and rolled her eyes. "He's not jealous of you, silly."
Illya was lost. If not of him, then . . . ah. She could well be right, but she didn't need to know that. "Marion, I told you before. He's not . . . we're not . . . we don't. . ." He trailed off, not quite sure how to talk about the subject in a public venue.
She shook a finger at him. "The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks," she misquoted. "I'm not blind, Illya. When you two are together, the rest of the world might as well go hang. If you don't and you're not and he's not, then you darned well ought to be and that's all I have to say about it."
He sighed. "It's complicated. I can't."
She sniffed. "Then you're not nearly the man I thought you were."
"That is probably quite true," he said ruefully. "I suspect I should go."
"You're also much denser than I thought you were!" she hissed, and then she grabbed him and kissed him soundly, her body molding to his, her lips soft, her tongue slick and playful. He responded automatically, but when she finally let him go, his eyes reflexively went to the patio glass, searching for Napoleon.
"The door," Marion whispered.
He shifted his gaze just in time to see Napoleon leave, a thunderous frown on his face. He winced. "What have you got me into, Marion?"
"Nothing at all, according to you. Would you like a drink?"
"Make it a double."
* * *
Napoleon didn't bring up the incident at Marion's. Illya opted to emulate him, and things settled back into their usual state with Napoleon chasing every skirt he came across and Illya reacquainting himself with manual dexterity exercises. On a professional level, things were better, though, as Mr. Waverly seemed to have taken Illya's recommendation to heart, and was pairing them on more missions. And in the field, as Napoleon had once said, they clicked. They moved together like meshing gears, so perfectly in tune that most of the time it was as if they could read one another's minds.
Well, apart from his brief and embarrassing failure to realize that Napoleon had been replaced by a THRUSH lookalike. Coming on the heels of both Angelique and Marion, Illya had put the change in rapport between them down to lingering tension. He would be careful in the future not to make assumptions like that. No matter how much stress there was between them personally, professionally they were a team.
The worst part was that even though they excelled when they worked together, Mr. Waverly was only pairing them about every-other affair, as if he were still testing the waters. It was frustrating. Illya kept wondering if he was waiting for them to either make a major mistake, or kill each other out of sheer annoyance. It was odd how much more irritating someone you really liked could be, versus someone you didn't give a damn about. He tapped a finger idly on the edge of his empty airline coffee cup, still almost as nettled with Napoleon as he'd been before being sent off to try and keep his own government from starting World War Three on the strength of a THRUSH deception while UNCLE worked to nullify the threat.
That had been vexing too. As his stint in Section Seven had proven, public relations was not his strong suit. Nor was he much of a diplomat. He'd been lucky to be allowed to return to New York instead of being on his way to a reeducation facility or worse, a firing squad. In hindsight, perhaps locking the Premier's advisors in the cloakroom until he could talk some sense into the man had been ill-conceived. Fortunately the old kukuruznik's infamously erratic sense of humor had overcome his equally infamous temper and he'd clapped Illya on the back and asked if he could come do that once a week or so to show them their place. Some of Napoleon's luck had apparently rubbed off on him.
Thinking of Napoleon brought his frown back. The man was always at his most annoying when he was at his most American. His glib assumption that the Soviet government would take 'Uncle Sam's' word for it that they had not fired the fungus-laden missiles despite all evidence to the contrary had been insanely optimistic, revealing a shocking lack of understanding of how things functioned outside his own country. He hadn't thought Napoleon that naïve. Of course, there was always the possibility that Napoleon had been deliberately twitting him. A not uncommon event.
He started to lift his cup to his mouth, then remembered it was empty; he wished the 'stewardess,' a stocky, greying brunette about his mother's age, would bring the coffee around again. Aeroflot could take a few tips from PanAm. And if that didn't speak to just how spoiled he had gotten living in the West, nothing would. He was about to try and catch her attention when his breast pocket started beeping. He quickly fumbled the communicator out and ducked into the rear lavatory. At least they had finally taken his advice. Batteries made the things infinitely more useful. Unfortunately it also made them infinitely more maddening, as they went off constantly, usually at the worst possible moment.
"Channel D open, Kuryakin here."
"Mr. Kuryakin." Mr. Waverly sounded faintly irked. But then, he usually did. "Where are you?"
Illya glanced at his watch and estimated. "Somewhere over Poland, I believe, on my way to Paris to catch a flight back to New York." As the saying went, there was no rest for the weary. Or was that wicked? He was never quite sure; it seemed he'd heard it both ways. In any case, the only rest he was going to get was on a transatlantic flight to New York.
"Hm, yes, about that. . . you needn't hurry back."
He stared at the communicator as if he could actually see his superior in its metal grille. "Sir?" he asked uncertainly, completely thrown off-balance. Was he being fired? Reassigned to Europe?
"You did an exceptional job with this affair," Waverly said grudgingly. "And I realize that your schedule has been . . . unusually rigorous."
If by rigorous he meant two trips from the US to the Soviet Union in 48 hours, the US leg including a cross-country flight from California to New York and back, then a jaunt to Moscow from the Kamchatka peninsula, and only catnaps for sleep the entire time, then yes, it had been. "A trifle," he allowed.
"As I thought. I have noted in your file that you're to have two day's leave to rehabilitate yourself. I can't have agents operating below par due to fatigue."
"Two days leave?" Illya echoed, still off-balance. He had once seen a movie on television the plot of which involved alien plants that came to Earth and duplicated human beings, only the copies didn't act at all normally. He briefly wondered if something similar had happened to Mr. Waverly.
"Yes, Mr. Kuryakin. Mr. Solo suggested it. He said you appeared abnormally fatigued at our last meeting, and I must say I agree with him."
Ah. All right. Now things made more sense. Napoleon was up to something. What, he was not sure, but something. But if it got him two days off, he would go along with it. "Thank you sir. I appreciate it."
"Just don't get used to it," Waverly said, and Illya thought he heard just a hint of amusement in his gruff voice.
"I wouldn't dream of it, sir."
"Good. Waverly out."
Illya put away his communicator and returned to his seat, daydreaming about how he would spend his two days off. At the moment he leaned toward sleeping a great deal and doing nothing more demanding than visiting his favorite restaurants. It had been a long time since he'd had an opportunity to relax in Paris.
When the plane landed he contacted the local office and had them revise his travel arrangements, then took a room at a little family-run hotel he knew from his student days when he'd worked as a taxi driver for spending money.
After sleeping half the clock around, and a better shower than he'd had the chance for in some time, he was back in his room, arms goose-fleshing, pawing through his case for a heavy jumper. He wished that he could find the jumper he'd bought in Ireland; he'd looked for it when packing, knowing it would be good for a trip home, but it had been nowhere to be found. In fact, come to think on it, he hadn't seen it in nearly a year. The last time had been . . .
He muttered a dark imprecation under his breath and resolved to go through Napoleon's closet next time he was there. No doubt it was hidden somewhere behind those high-priced cardigans that Illya thought made Napoleon look unpleasantly like the father on My Three Sons. Americans had such an obsession with widowers raising families: Steve Douglas, Ben Cartwright, Andy Griffith, Jed Clampett . . . it was really quite peculiar. He wasn't sure he would ever truly understand the American psyche. Fortunately, the French psyche was far more comprehensible. Food. Wine. Sex. Perhaps a little work. But food and wine first.
Lacking a warmer jumper, he settled for pulling a second polo-neck over his first, and shrugged into his wrinkled suitcoat. A stop at the desk got him a loaner umbrella in case the lowering clouds developed into actual rain, and then he was off to find dinner.
He went to a nearby brasserie he'd loved when heíd lived in Paris. It had changed someĖ the formerly dirty white walls were now maize gold, and the once faded red-and-white checkered curtains and cushions had all been replaced with cobalt blue. The decor made him think more of Ibiza or Mallorca than of France, but it gave the place a feeling of warmth that was welcome, considering the weather.
The gamine young hostess escorted him to a small table near the back apologetically. "I'm sorry we haven't a better table," she apologized. "It's always crowded when people don't want to sit outside."
"This is quite fine," he assured her, taking his seat and adjusting his coat to make sure it draped in a way that concealed his weapon. "Tell me, what do you recommend?"
She beamed, clearly pleased to have been asked. "For a starter, I like the duck and smoked bacon mousse. If that doesn't appeal, our escargot are very well regarded, or since it's cold today, perhaps the onion gratinée. For dinner itself. . . do you prefer meat, poultry or fish?"
Illya considered a moment. "Poultry, I think." He had fond memories of a certain dish,
"You should have the brique poulet then. It's a house speciality from before the new owner took over. The chicken is rubbed with salt, thyme, garlic and rosemary, and then . . ."
"Cooked under a brick," Illya finished for her with a smile. "I remember it. I used to eat here, some years back. I'm glad it's still on the menu."
He ordered it with frites and haricots vert just like he used to, because if he was going to be nostalgic, he ought to do it right. He also ordered both the mousse, and a cup of the onion gratinée. His last meal had been a bowl of shchi and a piece of black bread some twenty hours previous, and he was hungry enough to eat, as Napoleon liked to say, a horse. After he chose a wine to accompany the meal, the hostess took down his order and then disappeared through the swinging doors that led into the kitchen.
Illya studied the room, recognizing a few things from years earlier. It seemed the new owners had kept more than the name and one recipe. An art student's counterfeit of Van Gogh's Sunflowers had been moved from its former place in the hall that led to the toilet, to a more prominent position over the tiny bar. The colors in the painting went much better with the current decor. A large majolica urn glazed in kaleidoscopic patterns of red, yellow, green and blue filled a niche between the front window and the door. Illya recalled that it had formerly been used to hold patron's umbrellas while they dined.
Impatiently looking toward the kitchen for any sign of his server, one other thing caught his eye. There by the door, almost unnoticeable in the shadows, was a harvest doll of woven wheat similar to the one he'd made during a country excursion when he was bored and a little drunk and easily talked into demonstrating some of the odder skills of his youth. They weren't uncommon anywhere in the world. He'd seen them in France, Ukraine, Poland, Greece, EnglandĖ he'd even seen them in Kansas. It was noteworthy only in that it stirred pleasant memories.
The one he'd made that day had gotten left at the picnic spot when the four of them had dashed to the car to escape a fast-moving thunderstorm. He remembered that day fondly. Nathalie's friend Marthe had been wearing her hair tied with a green ribbon, and Michel had 'stolen' it for him when he needed something to secure the grain. Their plans for a picnic and hike rained out, they'd gone back to their hotel with their wine and picnic basket, and things had gotten rather interesting. That had been the first time heíd touched another man in desire.
He was distracted from his reminiscences when his waitress reappeared with his wine and poured a taste in his glass. He drank it and, pleased, nodded to her to fill the glass. She did so, and then vanished again. A few moments later she returned with his starters and he began to eat. She'd been right about the mousse, it was excellent. The poulet, when it came, was so exactly as he remembered it that he put down his fork and motioned the waitress over.
"Would you ask the chef to come out?" he asked, playing a hunch.
She looked worried. "Is something wrong, m'sieur?"
"Nothing at all. I simply wish to offer my compliments."
"Oh," she was obviously relieved. "I'll see if he can come, just a moment."
He waited, watching the kitchen doors, and grinned when they swung open. The waitress gestured toward him, and Michel's gaze found his, widening.
"Illya Nikolaivitch! Is it you?" He hurried toward the table, hands extended.
"Do you know any other Russians who would eat your miserable cooking, Michel?" Illya asked, coming to his feet.
They clasped hands first, then embraced, earning curious glances from the few other patrons still left. "Forgive me, Michel, I would have asked for you earlier but it's been so long I didn't think you could possibly still work here. You always talked about having your own restaurant, so I assumed you would long since have moved on."
Michel grinned. "And you would be right, in a way. I don't just work here, my friend, I own it. I bought it from Maurice last year with a little windfall from a departed aunt." Before Illya could congratulate him, he continued, a hand on his arm, urging him up. "Come, weíll go up to the apartment. My assistant can finish the shift and close up, we have catching up to do."
Illya crossed his arms and lifted an eyebrow. "Before dessert?"
Michel laughed, shaking his head. "At least that hasnít changed. No, youíre right, finish your dinner. I have a few things to do first myself, then we can take your dessert, or rather, desserts if I know you, with us. And coffee too," he added, anticipating Illyaís next request. "Say you will?"
"I would be pleased to."
After Illya finished his dinner, Michel escorted him up the narrow stair at the back of the building up to the second floor. It was a nice flat, circled with country-style windows which could be shuttered against the cold or left open to let in light and air in good weather. Though large enough for a family, it was clear to Illya that Michel lived alone. The furnishings were very basic, obviously Michel had spent his money on the restaurant. A newspaper was scattered on the sofa, and Michel began to gather it up, looking embarrassed.
"Sorry, I wasn't expecting company."
"It's all right, you should see my place," Illya lied.
Michel chuckled. "Still a slob, eh?" He folded the paper, and stopped, looking at one of the headlines. "There must be no real news today if they're putting in headlines like this. It seems someone's gone and blown a hole in the Sernian Premier's tomb and stolen his burial jewelry. Stealing from the dead? They must be either crazy or desperate." He dropped the newspaper into a basket next to the fireplace. "Speaking of your place, where is it now? I heard you'd moved to London?"
"Actually, it was Berlin for a while, then London, and now New York," Illya confessed. "Going on nine months."
"They let a crazy Russian like you live in New York? I thought Americans were afraid of Communists."
"Some are, but many aren't. Most seem to be more curious than hostile. I think it's the lure of the forbidden."
"Are you sure it's not the hair? You look like one of those singers, you know the ones, from England, 'yeah, yeah, yeah,'" He sang, reaching out to ruffled Illya's hair with a broad palm.
Illya sighed, smoothing his hair down again. "You and my partner would get along."
"Your partner? What are you doing these days anyway, that has you living in New York and traveling armed?" Michel's expression was momentarily serious, his brown eyes concerned as he patted his own shoulder, mirroring the spot where Illya's gun rode in its holster. "I thought you were going to finish your post-doctorate at the Sorbonne and get a job teaching. I don't know many professors who carry guns."
Michel must have felt the weapon when they'd embraced, just as he'd felt the difference in Michel's frame. The lithe body he'd known was more solid now, heavier, more man than boy, and there were a few silver threads in his dark hair and van-dyke beard, though he was only a year or two Illyaís senior. "Don't worry, it's nothing nefarious. I work for UNCLE."
Michel stared at him, and then laughed, shaking his head. "Finally found a job where they don't mind you blowing things up, did you?"
Illya grinned back at him. "Precisely."
"Do you like it?"
"Oddly enough, I do, mostly, though there are times I wish I'd gone ahead and gotten a teaching position instead. Especially while I'm being tied up and questioned."
Michel sat down on the sofa and patted the cushion next to him. "Take off your coat and sit, be comfortable." As Illya complied, Michel continued. "You know, these villains lack imagination. I could think of much better things to do with you if I had you tied up."
Illya was glad he'd removed his coat, because he abruptly felt overwarm. He met Michel's gaze evenly. "I remember." Nathalie's stockings had been surprisingly strong.
A knock at the door startled both of them, and Michel leaped to his feet as if shot from a cannon. "That will be the coffee and dessert." He went to the door and opened it, conferring in low tones for a moment with the waitress before taking the tray from her and pushing the door closed with his hip. He set the tray down on the table in front of the couch, and poured coffee from the press into two cups. Illya noticed his hand were slightly unsteady.
"Do you ever hear from Nathalie?" Illya asked, hoping it didn't sound like he was changing the subject.
"I do. They come in sometimes, she and Marthe." He set a coffee in front of Illya, and followed it with the fruit pudding and a fork. "You know, they have a flat together, over on rue Quincampoix. They've been together ever since The Picnic." The way Michel said 'the picnic' gave it capital letters.
"I didn't know, but it doesn't surprise me." It didn't. He tried not to remember how they'd looked together, all soft curves, delicate fingers disappearing into shadowed spaces. Deliberately Illya cut a corner off the dessert that had arrived with the coffee, swirled it through the cremé anglaise pooled around it, and took a bite, savoring the flavors. In England they called it bread pudding, but it was better here, like most things edible. Using brioche for the bread, and dried apricots and currants instead of raisins made a world of difference.
A finger touched the corner of his mouth.
"You had some cremé anglaise there," Michel said huskily, but when he pulled back his hand, he didn't wipe it on a napkin, but rather licked it clean. "Illya. . . ?"
It was very, very tempting. He still found Michel extraordinarily attractive and his body was saying 'yes' enthusiastically. But he remembered Napoleon's women, and his lack of men, and decided it wouldn't be fair to change the rules of the game mid-match. Nor would it be fair to Michel. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Michel."
Michel sat back, nodding, disappointed but not upset. "There is someone?"
"Not . . . exactly. It's complicated." He heard himself using the same phrase he'd used with Marion, and winced a little. "We work together. It's not a good idea."
Michel snorted. "Since when is love a good idea? It's possibly the worst idea in the entire world. But that has rarely stopped anyone, has it?"
"Who said anything about love?" Illya asked, and then took another bite of his pudding.
Michel leaned back, one hand resting in the crease of his thigh, heavy fingers drawing attention to the prominent mound beside them. Illya let his gaze drift slowly upwards, unwilling to do it quickly and appear flustered. When his gaze reached face-level, he found the expected smirk on Michel's saturnine face.
"You were half hard before we even closed the door, Illyusha, but you turned me down. If an old friend may be excused for being crude, if it was just sex, we'd be fucking."
Illya put down his fork, and picked up his coffee instead. "An interesting conclusion," he said with a small shrug. He took a sip, swallowed, and then put his cup down once more. "Tell me how you talked Maurice into selling the restaurant? I thought he'd die in it."
"He nearly did," Michel said wryly, tapping his chest. "Bad heart. But before he actually keeled over in the kitchen, he decided that he could have a far more pleasant demise if he moved to a little cottage in La Seyne-sur-Mer near his daughter and grandchildren and died there in several more years time." He looked up at the ceiling, pursed his mouth, and whistled a few notes. "Of course, it didn't hurt that I called Marie-Anne in La Seyne-sur-Mer and told her about the fainting spells, and the pills, and the dire warnings from the doctor about taking it easy. Marie-Anne can be . . . persuasive, you see." He winked.
Illya laughed, and wondered what it was about Machiavellian men that attracted him.
After dessert they finished off a bottle of sauternes and a half-decanter of brandy between them, by which time Illya was feeling a little stupid from the sweets and alcohol, so when Michel leaned over to kiss him he let it happen. Fortunately he came to his senses before Michel got past the second polo-neck.
He declined an offer to stay in Michel's guestroom; he was already paying for a hotel room, and his resolve might weaken if Michel was that close at hand, so he walked back to the hotel around two in the morning, the chilly night air clearing his head and reinforcing the wisdom of his decision.
He washed up in the communal bathroom before going to his room, and drank several glasses of water in a probably-futile attempt to head off a hangover. He knew better than to drink sauternes-- sweet wines were the worst for hangovers-- but it was Michel's favorite. Letting himself into his room, he was stricken by a momentary pang of regret at having turned him down. He genuinely liked Michel, and Michel was very good in bed.
Damn Napoleon anyway.
A glance at his watch and a moment of mental calculation told him it was still relatively early evening in New York. He got out his communicator and turned it on.
There was a pause, and then a familiar voice. "Overseas relay open."
"Channel D, please."
"Sorry, Illya, no can do. Napoleon's in the field and on radio silence," Heather answered.
He was nonplused for a moment. "He's working?"
"Yup. While you play, Napoleon works. Don't you feel sorry for him?"
"Not particularly." What was Napoleon up to? Why would he have had Waverly keep Illya in Paris if he was going on a mission? "Does the mission involve Angelique?" he asked suspiciously.
"Not this time, thank goodness." Heather shared his dislike of Angelique. "No, he's been off in some godforsaken Balkan backwater all on his lonesome, from what I hear. But Mr. Waverly says he'll be home late tomorrow. I guess he got what he was after, even though he managed to make headlines doing it.."
Illya frowned. He would have expected a job in the Balkans to go to him, not Napoleon, who would stick out like a sore thumb in Eastern Europe. Suddenly the last part of her comment registered. "Headlines?"
"I guess people don't like it when you blow up mausoleums. Imagine that."
Everything clicked. "Sernia? That was Napoleon?"
"It was indeed."
He tsked. "Sloppy work."
"I'll let you tell him that. Do you want me to give him a message if he checks in?"
"What? Ah, no. It's not that important, I'll see him after I get back. Have a good evening."
"You too, Mr. K. Nighty-night!"
He grimaced. "Good night, Miss McNabb."
He put away his communicator and got ready for bed, still trying to puzzle out why Napoleon would have wanted him on the sidelines for a job that was clearly right up his alley. They were going to have to have a little talk when he got home.
* * *
Two mornings later when he reported to Mr. Waverly's office to get his next assignment, the first thing he saw was Napoleon standing by the window and rubbing the small of his back with both hands. Mr. Waverly was nowhere in sight.
"Blowing holes in tombs and stealing jewelry from dead men is hard work, I see," Illya said drily.
Napoleon turned quickly, wincing, a vaguely guilty expression on his face. "Illya! I didn't know you were back."
"I got in last night. I must admit to being a little curious as to why I got two days off in Paris while you worked a job that should have been mine."
Napoleon put the back of his hand to his forehead melodramatically. "This is the thanks I get for finagling a couple of days off for you?"
Illya crossed his arms and lifted his chin. "Thank you for the time off. Now why did I get it?"
Napoleon sighed and walked over to the conference table, pulling out a chair and sitting down. He did both a little stiffly. "Politics," he said after he was settled. "The Sernians were suspicious of UNCLE to start with, and as one of the few remaining non-aligned countries in that region, they're even more paranoid about the Soviet Union. Mr. Waverly and I decided it would be better to send me, because if things went south there would be no question for whom I was working."
"I see." Illya sat down two chairs over. "It's a reasonable explanation," he allowed, grudgingly. "Though it would have been nice to be told up front, rather than finding out about your mission from Heather and wondering if I had somehow put a foot wrong."
Napoleon looked annoyed. "Heather has a big mouth."
"Which you've always told me you appreciated," Illya said with a wink.
"That's in an entirely different context," Napoleon said, wrinkling his nose. "Heather shouldnít be gossiping about missions to people who are not involved in them."
"Why should she be any different from the rest of the communications staff?"
Napoleon opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again, apparently unable to think of a response.
"What have you done to your back?" Illya asked.
Before Napoleon could respond, the door opened, admitting Mr. Waverly.
"Gentlemen," he said. "I'm pleased to see you both in good health. I have a new project for you."
Illya noted the use of the word 'project' rather than 'mission' or 'affair' and shot a glance at Napoleon, who looked grim. Apparently he'd noticed too.
"The last two affairs in which you were involved have made me realized that despite being an international organization, in some aspects UNCLE tends to be somewhat provincial, with many agents unable to function effectively outside their home jurisdiction. The two of you are among a handful that I can reliably send just about anywhere and be assured that you will complete your mission successfully, with a minimum of bother."
That sounded suspiciously like a compliment, the second in less than a week. Illya had long ago learned that compliments from one's superiors were not always a good thing.
"Because of that," Mr. Waverly continued. "I would like both of you to see about writing, from your differing perspectives of course, a kind of guidebook to coping with culture differences on missions, which we can then use to help train some of our less adaptable agents."
He'd been right to be suspicious. "A guidebook?" he echoed. "Do you mean, for every country we have visited?" The thought filled him with a vague sense of horror. He would never get to see the sun again; he would be trapped in UNCLE's windowless hell forever.
"No, no, certainly not. Just something general."
The mind boggled. How on earth could he explain how he did what he did when it was so utterly instinctual? It was something he'd learned to do at so early an age that he no longer even remembered the first time. "Sir, if I may speak freely?"
"I believe the ability to adapt to a new culture, or in Mr. Solo's case to induce other cultures to adapt to him--" he ignored Napoleon's affronted 'Hey!' "--is not something which can be taught."
Mr. Waverly gave Napoleon a faintly amused look, then turned his attention back to Illya. "I realize that much of the skill is innate, Mr. Kuryakin, however I would still appreciate whatever insights you both may have. Oh, and if it's not too onerous a task, try to finish up by Wednesday. We can't have our agents sitting about the office for too long."
Illya saw his own relief echoed in Napoleon's eyes. Two days wasn't too bad. Illya was sure he could make up something plausible by then. Waverly dismissed them, and they left his office together, taking the elevator down to the next floor.
Illya looked at Napoleon resentfully. "It's not fair. You make a hash of your mission, I wasnít even there, yet we both get punished?"
"I did not make a hash of my mission," Napoleon said defensively. "Analysis is getting the information we wanted off that photo as we speak."
"You got your mission on the front page of Le Monde, Napoleon. Not exactly low profile."
"Thereís nothing in the UNCLE fieldwork manual that says we have to keep our missions out of the press, now is there?"
Illya thought about it, and grudgingly conceded the point. "Yes, well, still. . ."
"Whatever it takes to get the job done," Napoleon quoted at him.
"If Waverly is so happy with you, why do we have this project?" Illya asked.
Napoleon had no answer for that as they stopped outside his office. Illya smirked and turned to go to his cubicle in the new agentís bullpen.
"Where are you going?"
He swivelled to look at Napoleon, who was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. "To my desk to begin this project."
"Your desk is in here." Napoleon jerked his head toward his office.
"Since about an hour ago when I had one moved in for you. Some of the other agents were starting to ask about your availability. I thought Iíd just nip that in the bud."
Illya snickered. "Marking your territory?"
Napoleon made a face "Ah, I was thinking more along the line of Ďhe followed me home, mom, can I keep him?í but if youíd rather think of yourself as a fire-hydrant, go ahead."
Illya had no idea what Napoleon meant by that first thing but he knew about fire hydrants. "If you urinate on me it will be the last time you ever use your chlen for anything."
"Illya!" Napoleon put a hand on his chest, looking shocked. "And to think I even requisitioned a new typewriter for the office in your honor. See if I ever do you any more favors."
Illya peered past him into the office and saw the unimstakably streamlined shape of an IBM Selectric on a typing stand situated between the two desks. Delighted, he pushed past Napoleon and into the office. "Prekrasniye!" he breathed, turning on the power and feeling it hum to life beneath his fingers, just waiting for a touch to send the type-element flying. "Vy krasivaya vesch'." He straightened up and looked at Napoleon. "I am sorry I was rude. Thank you very much. I have always wanted to use one of these."
Napoleon looked amused. "I can see I'm going to have to keep this a secret or the girls in the steno pool will all be trying to lure you into file-room orgies with promises of modern office equipment. If you get this excited over a typewriter, I can just imagine what a photocopier would do."
Illya snorted and rolled the piece of paper that was in the platen, saw that it was blank, pulled over a chair, and sat down.
"Why don't you go first?" Napoleon said drily. "Seniority doesn't matter around here."
Illya looked up. "Were you ready to start?"
"Ah... why don't I go get us some coffee?"
Illya nodded, hiding a smile. "Please."
Napoleon moved toward the door, where he paused, turned, and winced, one hand going to his lower back again as he asked: "Cream, two sugars, right?"
"Since when? At my place you always add cream and sugar."
"That's because it's your coffee. What have you done to your back?"
Napoleon glared at him briefly, letting him know the dig at his coffee-making abilities had not gone unnoticed, but then he shrugged. "Oh, the usual. Strained something."
"Have you been seen to?"
"It's not bad enough to warrant seeing a doctor. A couple of days without climbing around on a moving train, and a few aspirin should do the trick."
Illya nodded in understanding. He was all too familiar with the aftereffects of a strenuous mission. He turned back to the typewriter, hearing the door slide closed behind Napoleon. He played with the margins and tab settings until he got the hang of them, experimented with the correction function, which would be a godsend when not typing with carbons, and then reached for a fresh sheet of paper to start his project on and there wasn't one.
His new desk was empty; apparently whoever had moved it had not also thought to stock it. He went to Napoleon's desk to borrow a few sheets of paper, and noticed that the report of the Sernian mission lay open on the blotter. Curious, he picked it up and read through it. Ingenious, really, using the school group as camouflage. That Satine fellow seemed a bit of a prick, though Napoleon's comments regarding him were oddly complimentary. He had helped out there at the end, so Illya had to give him credit for that.
Sadly nothing in the report explained why Napoleon couldn't just have snuck into the crypt after viewing hours and relieved Premier Jans of his medal without the drama of a mid-day explosion. Ah well. It had been clear to him from the start that Napoleon was a bit of an exhibitionist. He had just put down the report and was hunting for blank paper when the door swooshed open and Napoleon came in clutching two mugs of coffee. He looked at Illya and raised an eyebrow.
Illya held up the paper he'd just located. "I needed paper. There was none in my desk."
"Ah. I thought for a minute there you were after my chocolate stash."
Illya looked at the desk. "You have a chocolate stash?" He made a move as if to start opening drawers and Napoleon glared at him.
"I'll have you know at this distance I'm a crack shot with a cup of hot coffee."
Illya held up his hands, one still clutching the sheaf of paper. "I surrender. Your chocolate is safe."
"Yeah, until the next time I leave the office." Napoleon handed him one of the two cups. "I'll have to requisition a lock for my desk."
"Don't bother. I have yet to meet a lock I cannot pick."
"In that case, I'll just start charging you per piece."
Illya shrugged. "That's fair, so long as it's no more than I would pay at the vending machine." He took a sip of his coffee and nodded his thanks as he returned to the typewriter. Napoleon settled in at his desk with a legal pad and pen.
The day went surprisingly quickly, the tedium broken by a couple of coffee breaks, lunch, and periodic exchanges of ideas on how to fulfill Mr. Waverly's requirements for the project. To Illya's surprise, his own strategy, once he thought about it, turned out to fairly simple to outline: obtain a dossier about the country from Research, familiarize yourself with at least one major city and a few facts about its primary industry, and you were set. You could pass yourself off as a businessman traveling for a meeting about said industry.
It was also helpful to memorize a half-dozen phrases in the local dialect, because that made it look like you were at least trying to understand them as opposed to assuming they would have to understand you. Of course, that part was easier for some people than for others.
Napoleon's strategy turned out to be significantly more difficult to pin down, and they spent most of the afternoon talking about it. Trying to quantify Ďcharmí was a task significantly beyond Illyaís creative abilities. Or at least, doing so in a way Napoleon approved of. Apparently 'act like a clueless tourist and bat your eyelashes' was objectionable.
At ten after six, Napoleon pushed his chair back from his desk with a scowl. "All right, thatís it," he declared irritably. "Iíve spent more time on this dumb thing today than I usually do on a real mission. Time to go home." He stood up, and groaned softly, hand on his back again. "Sitting all day hasnít done my back any good, either. Itís stiffened up even worse."
Illya stood as well, snagging his jacket from the back of his chair. "Take more aspirin?"
"Iíve already taken more than Iím supposed to take in a day. What I need is a massage, but the only masseuses Iím going to find at this hour will be the kind who work the streetcorners and only massage one area. And that wouldnít help."
Illya settled his jacket across his shoulders and looked at Napoleon with amusement. "I thought that always helped."
"Well, okay, it might help a little," Napoleon conceded, grinning. "But itís not the kind of massage I really need."
"Actually, there is a place you could get a massage this time of day. A real one."
Napoleon looked at him expectantly.
"Thereís a banya over on Tenth, I go there sometimes. Theyíre open until eleven."
"A bath house. You could have a sauna to loosen things up, and get a massage after, and you donít have to make an appointment. Itís walk-in."
Napoleon stared at him, looking shocked. "A bath house? Iíve heard about those places, but I never thought youíd. . . ah . . . patronize one."
For a moment Illya didnít understand, then suddenly he did, and rolled his eyes. "Itís not that sort of bath house, Napoleon. Itís Russian-style, for everyone, not just men looking for men, though I am sure some of that goes on, how could they stop it? But it is a family spa. They even have co-ed times when the babushkas all come for a sauna and platza."
A flicker of something, relief, perhaps, crossed Napoleonís face, followed swiftly by widened eyes and a wry expression. "Naked?" he asked, clearly discomfited.
Illya chuckled. "No, Napoleon, bathing suits are required on co-ed nights. No naked babushkas. Besides, itís men-only tonight." He stepped toward the door and it opened. Napoleon followed him into the hall.
"Oh." He sounded relieved. "I think Iíll pass, though. Iíve never been to a banya. I wouldnít know what to do."
Illya stopped mid-stride and stared at him. "The great Napoleon Solo, intimidated by a bathhouse? I begin to think you are another THRUSH duplicate."
"Iím not intimidated," Napoleon protested. "Just . . . unsure of the etiquette."
"Etiquette." Illya shook his head. "Definitely a THRUSH plant. Come on, Iíll take you and hold your hand so you are not frightened by any golyye babushki who will not be there anyway on a Thursday night, or molested by a lecherous masseur. For my pains you can treat me to a sauna and dinner at the café next door afterward."
"Deal," Napoleon agreed with suspicious alacrity.
Illya figured he'd find a way to squirm out of paying, somehow.
As he had assured Napoleon, it was not co-ed night at the spa, and there were men of all ages in the dressing room, from young boys to old men. Napoleon seemed to relax when he realized Illya had not been putting him on about the 'family atmosphere.' Illya showed Napoleon where to sign up for a massage after the sauna, then they rented lockers and disrobed, winding old, soft towels around their hips before they walked to the sauna itself. Illya could see that Napoleon sported bruises on his solar plexus and ribs. Souvenirs of that tussle with Satine he'd read about in Napoleon's report, no doubt.
He opened the door to the sauna and stepped back for Napoleon to enter first. Napoleon hesitated for a moment, no doubt a little surprised by the blast-furnace heat.
"Russian saunas are much hotter than Swedish."
"So I see. It won't take long to get thoroughly roasted in here." He stepped inside.
Following him, Illya noticed some odd bruising around the back of his neck. Attempted strangulation, he speculated as he closed the door firmly behind them, earning nods from the three seventy-ish men who were already inside. Napoleon gingerly sat down on an unoccupied stretch of one of the broad benches, wincing a little and rearranging his towel so none of his bare skin came into contact with the stone. Illya sat a foot or so away, sagging a little as the heat sapped tension from him.
"You do this often?" Napoleon asked, a little incredulously.
"Once or twice a month, if I can. It was a unexpected delight to find this here in New York. I hadn't had a bath since I left the Soviet Union." Napoleon's eyebrows shot up, but before he could comment, Illya cut him off. "Oh don't start. You know what I meant."
Napoleon chuckled. "Yeah, I do. I always suspected you were a bit of a masochist, now I know."
"Just wait, it gets better," Illya said with a wink, turning to the bath attendant, a large, muscular fellow named Grigori whom he had gotten to know over the course of several visits. He was thankful Grigori worked at the baths, and not for THRUSH. "Platza, spaciba?"
"Da," Grigori returned, getting up to get the bucket of olive oil soap and a bundle of oak leaves.
Illya stood up and removed his towel, leaving it where he'd been sitting, then moved to the spot where the floor was already spattered with soap, and turned his back to Grigori, who dipped the leaves in the bucket and began to vigorously slap him up and down with the soap-drenched leaves.
"Relax, Napoleon," he said, hearing the sound of a sharply indrawn breath. "It's the platza, it's good for you."
"If you say so," Napoleon muttered, clearly dubious.
Illya held out his arms so Grigori could get at him more easily. "Some say it goes back to ancient Roman bathing customs."
"This a sauna, not a travelogue, boy" one of the old timers grumbled.
Illya shot him an apologetic glance. "Sorry."
Grigori finished with the soap and picked up one of the water buckets. Even though he was prepared for it, Illya couldn't suppress a gasp as the cold water was dashed over him, his muscles tensing then releasing in a full-body shudder. He nodded his thanks to Grigori who nodded back, and then shot a questioning look at Napoleon, clearly asking if he wanted the same treatment, and just as clearly expecting to be declined.
"I. . . ah," Napoleon began, then his gaze flicked briefly up and down Illya's bare body, and his chin lifted. "Sure. Why not?"
Illya suppressed a grin as he rewrapped his towel and sat back down. Napoleon would never be able to resist a direct challenge to his manhood like that.
Napoleon dropped his towel and moved to where Illya had just been, stretching out his arms and waiting, a look of fierce determination on his face. His expression turned to surprise as Grigori began the treatment. Clearly he'd expected it to hurt. Contrary to Napoleon's conjecture, Illya had never been a masochist. He actually hated true pain and would never volunteer for it. The platza was no more painful than a vigorous massage. Less so, in some ways. Illya wasn't going to warn him about the temperature of the water, though. It would be more fun that way.
He let his gaze range down Napoleon's naked back, noting that he had put on a pound or two since Illya had last seen him naked. It didn't look bad on him. In fact, he had truly splendid hindquarters, two near-perfect hemispheres. Broad shoulders tapered to a reasonably lean waist and hips. Hips which currently bore a scattering of small dark spots. At first Illya thought they were shadows, but they moved when Napoleon did, so they couldnít be.
Illya frowned. He was intimately familiar with the bruises left behind by virtually every body-blow known to man, and Napoleon was sporting several of those, but these were unusual. What would make such marks, two on either side in back, just a fingerlength or so past the actual hip and onto the rounded curve of buttocks, and four spread on either side in front, laddering up from the hipbone itself on each side.
Grigori blocked his view for a moment and he glanced up, meeting the man's eyes. He made an admonitory face and shook a finger at Illya before going back to his task.
What on earth?
His gaze returned to the marks, and he felt his hands curve in imitation, thumbs back, fingers spread, the way Napoleon had once showed him how to hold a basketball to shoot, as if gripping a loverís hips . . .
His gaze lifted to at the purplish splotches that littered the back of Napoleon's neck and shoulders, then dropped to the bruises on his hips, and he knew.
Those were not souvenirs from a fight, but from a much more intimate sort of tussle. Nor were they in places where a woman would leave them. Even if they had been, the hand span indicated by the bruising was much too wide to belong to a woman, which meant that Napoleon had been with a man.
No. No, he should not jump to conclusions. Things happened, sometimes, on missions. Things that werenít spoken of in public, though everyone knew they happened from time to time. It was a time-honored way to break a man. . .
But Napoleon hadnít mentioned anything, hadnít seemed quiet or moody, just his normal self. And there was nothing in the report to indicate that there had been any sort of torture. Napoleon had never really even been in custody, save for those few moments on the bridge.
Damn it. He felt a sudden, irrational flare of anger. Napoleon had changed the rules without telling him. Or perhaps he had made an assumption that there were rules, when there had been none. Perhaps Napoleon simply limited his alternative pursuits to missions when Illya wasnít there to see. And now Grigori thought he was the kind of man who beat his lover. Delightful.
"Napoleon, who gave you the bruises?" he asked quietly.
Napoleon looked down at himself, and smiled ruefully. "Satine, the sneaky bastard. He was good, Iíll give him that."
The admiration, almost affection, in Napoleonís tone was unmistakable.
The apologetic look from Grigori didnít make Illya feel much better.
So. No rules. He wished heíd known that three days ago. He might have had a much better time in Paris.
A sudden yelp grabbed Illyaís attention and he looked up to see Napoleon spluttering and dripping. Grigori had a slightly evil smile on his face as he put down the bucket.
Napoleon wiped his face and glared at Illya. "You couldíve warned me it was cold water."
"I could have," Illya agreed, offering a smile he didnít feel.
Napoleon studied him for a moment and then frowned. "Illya?"
"Itís time to shower off or youíll miss your massage," Illya said, getting up and moving to the door. Napoleon grabbed his towel and followed.
"Illya," he said again, struggling to fasten his towel around his hips as he walked.
"Illya," Illya corrected, for the first time annoyed by his perennial mispronunciation. "ĎEí as in eel, not Ďihí, as in illness."
"Illya," Napoleon said again, getting it right for once. "Whatís wrong?"
He was quiet until they got to the locker room again. Illya stepped into the shower and began to rinse off what was left of the soap. Napoleon took up the station next to him and did the same, and after a moment, spoke again.
"I can skip the massage if youíd rather just go eat."
"Donít be ridiculous, itís the main reason we came. I wonít starve in the next hour. Have your massage. Iíll do a few laps in the pool to kill time." The exercise would also help him burn off his temper. Hopefully.
"Swim? I thought you were going to defend me from lecherous masseurs," Napoleon pouted.
"I know the masseurs, and they are both happily married men whose wives would have their balls if they strayed. Iím not worried." He didnít want to sit in a small room and watch someone else touch Napoleon, even in an impersonal way. "If youíre worried, ask one of the old men from the sauna to come be your chaperone."
Napoleon looked a little put out, but after a moment he shrugged. "Just point me at the massage room, and I'll see you at the lockers in about an hour."
Illya pointed, Napoleon left, and Illya finished rinsing off, and then headed for the pool, which was mostly deserted this time of night, most people having gone home to dinner. He swam twenty laps at a punishing pace, took a moment or two to catch his breath, and then did another twenty more leisurely, finishing up with a little free swimming and floating just for fun. The urge to punch Napoleon in the nose had faded considerably. He could probably make it through dinner. A good night's sleep, and he would be ready to face the next day.
It was, he reminded himself, ridiculous to feel possessive of Napoleon. It was like feeling possessive of a butterfly. The only way he would ever stop moving from flower to flower was if he were a dry husk pinned to a collecting board, and that would be a terrible waste. He did, though, wish Napoleon was a little less scrupulous about their respective positions. Since Napoleon would always be slightly senior to Illya, he would always be in a position of putative authority over him. Which meant Illya would always be off limits.
He sighed and boosted himself out of the pool, toweling off and returning to the locker area to shower yet again, this time to get the chlorine off his skin so he wouldn't itch all night. He was already halfway dressed again when Napoleon returned from his massage, looking relaxed and mussed and not at all his usual buttoned-down, slicked-back self. Illya itched to touch his hair, which was soft and dry, without a trace of its usual coat of Brylcreem. He forced himself to look away. "Feeling better?" he asked, doing up the buttons on his shirt.
"Mmm. This was a great idea. Thanks." Napoleon pulled on his underwear, and then stepped into his trousers. As he zipped them, he looked at Illya again. "Are you feeling better?" he asked pointedly.
"Still hungry," Illya said. "But I had a good swim."
* * *
"All right, I'll bite. What are you so mad at me about?" Napoleon asked as he followed Illya up the stairs from Passad's erstwhile dungeon.
Illya managed not to stop, or even look over his shoulder, continuing up the stairs with only a minuscule hesitation. "I am not 'mad' at you."
"Right," Napoleon said drily. "Which is why you've been avoiding me for days. I wasn't entirely sure you'd come bail me out even if the delightful Miss Pepper managed to find you."
That did make Illya stop, and he turned, frowning. "Why wouldn't I? And incidentally, you were the one who had us booked on separate flights. Not to mention that it's rather difficult not to avoid you when you've gone and gotten yourself abducted and I have no idea where you are."
"Did you even look for me?" Napoleon asked, looking faintly aggrieved.
Illya sighed. "Of course I looked. In fact, I had managed to ascertain that Mr. Barrett had been seen in this general area, and was attempting to trace the ownership of this estate when Miss Pepper contacted me."
"Oh." Napoleon considered that a moment, then his gaze narrowed once more. "That doesn't explain why you were so irritable in Mr. Waverly's office the other morning."
Not for the first time since meeting Napoleon, Illya was tempted to pound his head against a wall. The man chose the worst times to be perceptive. "I am usually irritable in the mornings," he lied. "However since Mr. Waverly is normally present I must repress my natural inclination."
"Huh." Another moment of consideration led to another narrowed gaze. "So do you repress your natural inclinations around me too?"
For once, his temper overrode his common sense. "Yes," he snapped. "I do."
He was most of the way up the stairs by the time he realized Napoleon hadn't followed him. It was just as well. He had a headache from the smoke grenades, he'd scraped both shins shimmying down the drainpipe, was heartily sick of Gemma Lusso's supercilious attitude, and he'd been worried about Napoleon for about thirty-four hours. He'd never liked Rome and this trip had done little to change his mind. All he wanted to do was get home. He cadged a ride to his hotel with one of the Italian agents and was packing for the return flight when a 'shave and a haircut' knock came at his door.
He sighed, tucked the pair of socks he was holding into his bag, let his partner in, and went back to packing, pretending that Napoleon was not standing there, leaning against the door with his hands in his pockets, ruining the lines of the uniform he still wore. Thankfully he'd ditched the hat. Illya wondered if Napoleon had ever considered a Nehru jacket. The uniform's high collar was flattering to him.
"I don't think we were quite finished with that conversation," Napoleon said finally, after several minutes of silence.
"I think we were."
"You are mad at me."
"I am not mad at you."
"Yes you are. And you've been mad at me since the other night at the baths."
"Kindly do not tell me what I am or am not. Why would I be angry with you?"
"I don't know, but I'd like to find out."
Illya tried a new tactic, playing for sympathy. "I'm tired, Napoleon, and my eyes hurt and my head hurts. I would appreciate it if you would let me pack in peace."
"You don't need to pack yet, we don't leave until tomorrow. Are you hungry? I can order dinner in."
"It's too early for dinner."
Napoleon made a frustrated sound. "Damn it, Illya, I want to know why you're mad at me."
"I told you, I'm not." Illya raked a hand through his hair, equally frustrated. "It would make no sense to be angry with someone over something that is as natural to you as breathing." He winced internally, hearing the pronoun switch far too late to call it back.
There was a long silence. He put another pair of socks into his bag, waiting for the inevitable.
"What's as natural to me as breathing?" Napoleon asked finally.
Illya snorted. "Need you ask?"
"Ah." Another pause, then, less certain: "You've never seemed to mind."
"That's because I . . . thought I understood the rules."
Napoleon crossed the room and sat down on the bed across from the one on which Illya's suitcase rested, studying Illya intently. "Rules?"
"Rules," Illya sighed. "For whatever this is, between us."
"There's something between us?"
Illya scowled. "The 'elephant in the room,' remember?"
Napoleon nodded slowly. "Oh yes. I remember very, very well. But as I told you at the time, there is only one rule."
Illya stared at him. Napoleon had set down rules then? He racked his brain, trying to remember what, exactly, Napoleon had said that day, and understanding hit him like a truck at full speed. Gospodi pomiluy. Had he really been so incredibly, unbelievably dense? ĎWho and what you sleep with is your call, not mine.í
He looked up, meeting Napoleon's candid gaze. "I am an idiot," he said ruefully.
Napoleon grinned, his real grin, the one that lit his face and sent the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Well, maybe a little bit." He cocked his head to one side, sending a curious and blatantly flirtatious look Illyaís way. "So, why now?"
"Why now?" Illya prompted, not quite understanding the question.
"Yeah. What set you off now, when nothing had before? I mean, the only difference was . . ." he paused, and realization spread across his face like dawn light across the sky. "Oh."
Illya felt his face grow warm with embarrassment, and looked away.
"Iím flattered." Napoleonís voice was low, silky, almost a purr.
Illyaís gaze flicked back to him, taking in the smirk, and felt his mouth curve in rueful acknowledgment. Not that he was going to say it out loud. He remembered the fingermarks on Napoleonís pale skin, and frowned. "He was rough with you."
"Ah. Is that how you . . . ?"
"Yes. Do you like it rough?" he asked jokingly.
Napoleon sounded shocked, and his expression was surprisingly revealing. Illya read discomfort there, and something startlingly close to fear, and realized Napoleon had taken the question seriously. No matter that they were friends, and there was the potential to be more, that was something he had no place asking. "Nothing, it was a joke."
Napoleon still looked uncomfortable, and Illya wished like hell he hadn't said it. It had ruined the ease between them and he still didn't know what he wanted to know, though he had a few suspicions. He folded the undershirt he held, put it in the suitcase, and glanced at his travel alarm-clock on the nightstand. "Do you want to go eat?"
"Hm?" Napoleon blinked for a moment before answering. "I thought you said you weren't hungry."
"No, I said it wasn't dinner time yet, but I'm always hungry."
That got a smile. "You know, I hear there's a theory about that . . ."
"Yes, I know." He allowed his gaze to drift downward. "An applicable one."
Napoleon's eyebrows lifted, and his expression turned hopeful. Illya smirked and moved around the end of the bed to stand in front of him. He held out a hand.
"Come on, up."
Napoleon let Illya him brace him to his feet. As soon as he was up, Illya stepped closer, bringing them nearly nose-to-nose. He slid his hand up Napoleon's arm, let it rest on his shoulder, fingers curved over the muscle with just a hint of pressure. "So, it's my call, is it?"
Napoleon's pupils dilated, and he moistened his lips. "Yes," he said, his voice just a little hoarse.
Illya leaned in, his lips a scant half-inch from Napoleon's ear. "That strikes me as a trifle autocratic. One should always have the right of refusal," he said, making a strategic guess.
Napoleon closed his eyes and swallowed audibly. "One . . . should."
Under his fingers he felt the tension in Napoleon's body increase, and his suspicions strengthened. He caught Napoleon's earlobe between his teeth and tugged gently, then sucked on it before letting it go. "Refuse, or accept. Your decision. After that, it's mine."
Napoleon turned his head so their lips almost touched. "Accept," he whispered.
Illya kissed him, coaxing his lips open, tasting him. There was a hint of whiskey there, suggesting a drink at the hotel bar before heíd come up, and even more faintly the acrid tang of smoke grenades. His lips were surprisingly soft, and unsurprisingly responsive. Napoleon was an excellent kisser. Not too wet, not too hard, just . . .right. In every aspect. The touch of tongue against his own enticed him to deepen the kiss, but as he did, Napoleon broke away.
"Wait," he gasped, "wait." Hands fisted in Illyaís hair, he pulled back far enough to gaze intently into his eyes. "Does it matter?" he demanded, his voice ragged.
Illya lifted a hand to touch Napoleonís face gently, fingers stroking over the curve of his cheek to the rough stubble along his jaw. "Yes, Napoleon, it matters."
The relief in Napoleon's eyes was nearly painful, and the near-desperation in his kiss as their mouths clashed again told Illya how much that was needed. He gentled the kiss deliberately, and Napoleon responded to that, backing off a little, letting the touch of lips and tongues become more sensual and less frantic. With a soft sound of approval, Illya lifted his hands and flicked open the buttons down the front of the uniform. Napoleon's hands left his shoulder and waist for a moment as he shrugged out of the tunic, letting it fall to the floor.
The undershirt left behind was snug and white, showing off the breadth of Napoleon's chest and the heavy curves of his shoulders. Lower, the thrust of his cock strained the front of trousers clearly cut for a more average wearer. The navy serge seemed hard-put to contain what lay behind it. Illya trailed a hand down the center of Napoleon's chest, let it come to rest at the button of his trousers. He dealt with the button and zipper in short order, and the trousers fell, caught mid-calf by the military-style boots that completed the uniform. Napoleon bent to unlace one, and Illya put a finger beneath his chin and gently guided him back upright.
He felt Napoleon take a breath and part his lips to argue, and pressed the same finger against his lips. "Stay. There," he repeated, emphatically.
Napoleon stayed. Illya knelt and quickly unlaced both boots, easing off first one, then the other, then urging Napoleon to step out of the trousers which, released from the boots, had fallen to the floor. Wearing nothing but boxers and t-shirt, he was tantalizingly close to naked. His skin, nearly as fair as Illya's, had the illusion of being almost tanned, because the sparse hair on his legs and forearms was dark instead of fair. He glanced up to find that Napoleon was watching him, wide-eyed, breath coming raggedly. Illya smiled and slipped his hands beneath the waistband of the boxers and stretched them out, slipping them down and off, freeing the heavy shaft beneath them.
Odd, how vulnerable a circumcised man looked. How much more naked than simple nudity. He pushed the hem of Napoleon's undershirt a little higher, making sure it was out of the way, and leaned in to brush his lips against the hot, silky length of Napoleon's erection. The sensation was almost ticklish, sending shivers through him. Under his hands he felt the flutter of Napoleon's stomach muscles, heard his gasp. A moment later a hand touched his hair.
"Illya? Shouldn't I . . ."
"No." Illya cut him off. "You accepted, everything else is my decision. Now hush." He leaned forward to kiss each faded finger-bruise on Napoleon's left hip, then across to do the same on the right. A sound almost like a sob followed, just one, quickly silenced. Illya moved one hand down, encircling the base of Napoleon's cock, tipping it outward. He let the tip brush his lips, part them, and then leaned steadily forward until his lips touched his fingers.
In his peripheral vision Illya saw Napoleon's hands clench into fists, but he held still, and didn't speak, not in words in any case. His body was quite eloquent. Tiny, trembling thrusts that he tried to hold back, ragged breathing, a sheen of perspiration on pale skin, the clench of thigh and belly muscles. Beautiful.
When he'd imagined this moment, and he had, many times, he'd never imagined that Napoleon would allow him to take the lead. A fundamental misreading of Napoleon that he could see now. He'd been fooled, like everyone else, by the shiny, superficial exterior. And that was not Napoleon.
He wouldn't make that mistake again.
The necessity of breathing through his nose saturated his senses with a complex melange of soap, laundry detergent and sweat, all overlaid by the heavy richness of masculine arousal. The scent, familiar yet not, heightened his own need, and Illya shifted a little, reaching down to pop the button on his fly and unzip halfway, gaining just enough comfort that he wasn't unduly distracted, yet not enough to make it easy to slide his own hand inside and end things far too quickly.
He sighed a little around Napoleon's cock and went back to what he was doing, pulling almost all the way off with a little twist at the last which drew a whimper from above, before plunging back down, swallowing, feeling his eyes tear up with the effort. He repeated that until his jaw began to ache with the stretch, and Napoleon's knees were shaking.
Backing off, Illya spread his fingers to cover more of Napoleon's shaft and used his tongue to paint wide strokes up the sides of his cock, to circle the smooth, blunt tip and tease droplets of sweet salt from the os. At the same time, he slid his free hand up under Napoleon's t-shirt, found a small, hard nipple, and pinched it firmly, but not hard enough to hurt.
Illya held the sharply flanged crown of Napoleon's penis in his lips and worked his hand tightly up and down the slick shaft, stroking hard. Napoleon shuddered, gasping, muscles taut, still resisting. Illya let his other hand glide back down over a firm pectoral, over Napoleon's soft belly, dipping a finger briefly into his navel before following the line of fine, dark hair down to where his mouth and Napoleon's cock met.
He slipped two fingers into his mouth alongside Napoleon's penis, using them to echo the stroke of his tongue and his fist before withdrawing them once more, reaching back, stroking them lightly down the crease between Napoleon's buttocks. When they touched the opening there, Napoleon tried to pull away, not from his fingers but from his mouth, with a bitten off sound that was the first half of Illya's name. Thick, bitter fluid spilled over his tongue.
He waited until he was sure Napoleon was finished before he swallowed, and finally let him go, surging to his feet, ignoring the ache in his knees. Cupping Napoleon's face between his hands, llya kissed him deeply, mouth still stinging from the salt and alkalinity. Napoleon's tongue found his, sweeping in, eager and slick, but only for a moment before he had to tear his mouth away to pant for breath. Illya put his hands on Napoleon's chest and tugged his t-shirt up and off, then pushed him just hard enough to send him sideways back across the bed.
Napoleon braced himself on his elbows, still trying to catch his breath. Illya stripped methodically, jacket first, then tie, cufflinks, shirt, shoes and socks, trousers, and finally briefs. He opened the shaving kit that lay on the other bed next to his bag, and pulled out the jar of cold-cream he carried for makeup removal, and turned back to Napoleon. "Did he damage you?" he asked brusquely.
Napoleon stared at him for a moment, clearly not understanding, but then his gaze went briefly to the jar, and he flushed darkly as he realized what Illya meant. "No. Not . . . no."
"Good." Illya meant it, on several levels, but primarily because it meant he wouldn't have to wait to set about replacing every trace of that encounter in Napoleon's memory with one that mattered.
Illya sat down next to him, tucking the jar under the pillow for later use, and then he leaned over and kissed him, softly this time, without tongue, just a gentle pressure of lips against lips. "Lie down properly," he suggested, nudging Napoleon's thigh with his knee. Napoleon shifted position eagerly, and when Illya stretched out next to him, instantly reached for his cock.
Illya caught his hand, lacing their fingers together. "Not yet." Napoleon looked frustrated, and Illya tsked softly. "My decisions, remember?"
"But you. . ."
"This is what I want," Illya said softly. "Truly."
For a moment Illya thought Napoleon would protest, but finally he settled back with a sigh. Illya brushed a kiss across their joined fingers before he released Napoleon's hand and shifted up and over, straddling his hips, feeling the quiescent length of Napoleon's spent cock under his left thigh. He gazed down at his partner, and was pleased to see him flushed, sweaty, disheveled, and enervated. It was a feat to wear off Napoleon's coat of polish, and he thought him more beautiful without it, yet there was still a shadow in his dark hazel eyes. Not fear, something less. Perhaps. . . caution?
That hurt a little. He had hoped he'd gotten them past the point where caution was needed. Of course, it was sheer hubris on his part to think he could do that with one bout of oral sex. The thought made him smile at his own foolishness.
"That's a scary smile," Napoleon said, his voice a little raw. "Should I worry?"
"I am smiling at my own foibles, Polya, you needn't worry."
"Polya?" Napoleon queried, bemused.
Leaning down, Illya kissed him again, slow, and sweet, then drew back. "A nickname, I think you say. Or should I call you Napoleon in bed? It's rather a mouthful. Which is appropriate I suppose." He winked.
That drew a broad, bright grin. "Why thank you." Napoleon's gaze flickered down, and widened appreciatively. "Though if we're basing our bed-names on that, I'll have to be calling you Illya Nickolaivitch Kuryakin."
Illya laughed out loud at that, shaking his head. "Flatterer. What do you think that will get you? You're already in my bed."
"Well, technically speaking, it's UNCLE's bed, since they're pay . . ."
Before Napoleon could challenge that, Illya made him, and Napoleon surrendered without a fight, opening to the kiss, hands above his head, fingers curled, as if it were a gun against his belly, not flesh. Illya kissed him until he was breathless again, until they both were, and then he pulled away and began to explore, touching, tasting, mapping out the intricate surfaces of Napoleon's body, learning what he responded to, and what he didn't, storing the information away in his head, like a contour map.
Napoleon kept trying to touch him, with hands, feet, lips, a hip, a thigh, a knee, and each time Illya shifted away and shook his head and smiled, and Napoleon looked more and more frustrated, but then Illya would kiss some new spot, or lick an already-known one, and Napoleon would forget for a while. By the time Illya had finished with the front side and urged him over onto his belly so he could start on the back, Napoleon was half-hard again, which he'd hoped would happen.
He started at the top, brushing soft kisses against the faded purple-green bruises Satine had left on the back of Napoleon's neck. Napoleon shivered and sighed with each touch, amazingly responsive, and Illya understood in part the temptation that had led Satine to mark him so, the desire to provoke even greater response was nearly irresistible. But Illya had other ways of doing that, ways that didn't involve a juvenile marking of territory.
He licked and kissed and sucked his way down Napoleon's back, never hard enough to bruise, finding that the sensitivity extended the length of his spine and to random spots on either side. The hollow below the left shoulder-blade was one, as were the little indentations at the base of his spine where the iliac crests merged into the gluteus medii.
Napoleon's reactions were just short of ticklish, and Illya began to realize just why Napoleon was such a hedonist. With a body as responsive as his, he had little choice. And having someone respond so enthusiastically was playing havoc with his own willpower. He was hard enough, as the saying went, to pound nails, though the saying had always given him the shudders. What a hideous thought. Still, it was very nearly appropriate at the moment. After holding back so long, he suspected that one of two things would happen once he achieved his goal . . . either he'd come in thirty seconds like an adolescent, or he wouldn't be able to come at all.
It would be fun trying, though.
Fortunately, judging by the reflexive rocking of Napoleon's hips against the bed, he had given Napoleon enough time and stimulation to bring him back to full arousal. Time to indulge himself. Finally.
Illya reached under the pillow with his left hand and retrieved the cold cream. Napoleon's head was turned the other way, and he didn't notice. He considered as he opened it. Napoleon had said he wasn't damaged, but had acknowledged the roughness, and though it had been several days Illya would have to be gentle. He would have been anyway. Too much in their lives was harsh. This shouldn't be. Unless, of course, it needed to be, and tonight, it didn't. They hadn't gotten that close to the edge today.
He dipped a finger into the jarís content and then he touched it, cool and slick, against the small, tight furl between Napoleon's cheeks, pressing in with a firm touch.
Napoleon nearly bucked them both off the bed.
Illya gentled him with a free hand down his back, like he might a restive horse, and tried very hard not to imagine how the smooth, hot clench would feel around something other than a finger. "Does it hurt?" he asked, a little concerned, holding very still so as not to provoke another such response. The reaction had seemed more of a startle than a flinch, but either was unexpected, unless Satine had done more damage than Napoleon had realized.
Napoleon shook his head against his arm. "No, I, uh, was just . . . surprised."
"Ah." Illya relaxed a little. "Good." He chanced another half inch, and though Napoleon's breath caught, he let it out with a sigh, and Illya felt the muscles under and around his hands loosen. "Better."
He stroked, cautiously, and Napoleon tensed again, but relaxed almost instantly. Still expecting crudeness, Illya thought, wondering if all Napoleon's men had been rough with him. It would explain the reaction, if he thought that was the only way men could be with each other. "I won't hurt you," he said quietly.
Napoleon nodded. "I know."
"All right." Still a little perplexed, Illya slipped his finger free and reached for the jar again.
"Hey! Don't stop!' Napoleon craned around to look at him, face flushed, lips parted and moist, no trace of fear, which was reassuring.
Illya held up the jar. "Not stopping. Just making sure I keep my promises."
Two fingers this time, and though Napoleon didn't do his rodeo act again, he tensed, until Illya curved his fingers and pressed them forward, and down, and Napoleon gasped, and rocked against his hand.
The curse was shocking. Napoleon almost never swore. Illya understood the impulse though. It was incredibly tempting to push ahead, to simply take; his own body was awash in the need to bury himself in Napoleon's heat, to pump out his pleasure in that tight clasp, but something was wrong, something was off, and he couldn't, not yet. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, silently, willing himself to wait, wishing that the rest of his body responded to logic as well as his brain did. "What's wrong?" he asked, moving his fingers in tiny circles, feeling the twitches that provoked, hearing the little gasps.
"Is this your idea of torture?" Napoleon panted, his forehead against his arm again, hiding his face. "'Cause if it is, I think you've got the concept backward."
"You're stalling," Illya pointed out. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing! Come on, Illya, We both want this."
"Your mouth says you do, but your body doesnít seem quite so sure."
Napoleon was silent for long moments, and then finally he sighed, the sound clearly one of resignation.
"I'm just out of practice."
"A week is hardly long enough to get out of practice," Illya pointed out, fingers still stroking and stretching on autopilot.
"You're right, it's not."
It took entirely too long for that to register, but when it did Illya went utterly still as his brain laid out all the possible meanings behind the words. After a few seconds Napoleon made a frustrated sound and pushed back against his hand.
That snapped him right back into the moment. "But. . . the bruises."
"He was a little annoyed. He got over it."
"But . . ."
"There are other ways," Napoleon said, with just enough condescension to be convincing. "Now would you just do something?"
The sudden change from hesitation to impatience was just odd enough that it got past Illya's arousal-fuzzed brain, and he looked at Napoleon suspiciously. "Did you plan this?" he asked, though he couldn't quite imagine how something like this could be planned. And the desperation in that question earlier had not been false, he was sure of that.
Napoleon laughed, which felt very strange around his fingers. "I've been planning this since the day we met."
They both had, Illya realized. He smiled, and flexed his wrist, and Napoleon moaned, hands clutching at the sheets.
Past time, he thought. Long past time. He slipped his fingers free, and rolled his eyes at Napoleonís forlorn sigh. "It was your idea," he reminded him as he dipped his fingers into the jar yet again.
This time he stroked the contents down his own aching erection instead of using it on Napoleon. The cold cream lived up to its name and he shuddered in reaction, grateful that the shock of it backed his arousal down some. He might actually be able to get through the next few moments without embarrassing himself.
He turned back to find that Napoleon had pushed up onto his knees, offering himself blatantly. For a brief moment he considered it, but the image of those bruises on Napoleonís hips flashed through his mind again, and he put a slick hand on Napoleonís hip and pushed. "Turn over."
Napoleon looked at him oddly, a hint of confusion in his gaze, but he turned over. Illya urged his thighs apart, knelt between them, and leaned down to hook his arms beneath Napoleonís knees and lift his legs over his shoulders before dragging a pillow over to wedge it beneath Napoleonís hips as he nudged into position. Comprehension spread across Napoleonís face and he lifted his hands, resting them on Illyaís forearms, then he dropped his head back against the bed with a sigh, a flex of his legs tugging Illya closer.
Illya pressed forward, steadily, carefully, watching Napoleon's face for any sign of distress, but the slight wrinkle of forehead and the catch of lower lip between teeth didn't concern him. Discomfort wasn't pain, and it would fade quickly. After a few seconds of pressure, resistance eased, and he slipped inside, pushing deeper with a long, slow thrust, a soft groan escaping him as his cock was gloved by heat and pressure. Napoleon was tight. Amazingly tight. Beautifully tight. He shivered.
Napoleon's hands clenched on his forearms as he breathed out a faint whine. Against his belly Illya could feel he'd gone a little soft, too. He stopped there, halfway sheathed, trembling a little as he waited for Napoleon get used to him, his gaze returning to Napoleon's face to watch for cues. Even as he did, the wince smoothed out, and Napoleon's lips parted on a sigh, hands relaxing once more. He looked completely surrendered, and Illya realized that the times he thought he'd identified surrender on Napoleon's face during a mission, he hadn't. This was entirely different. Wrenchingly so.
Without conscious thought he moved again, forging in those last few centimeters and Napoleon's hands tightened on his arms again, though not so hard as before, and he gasped, eyes wide and surprised. "Illya!"
"Please do not be asking me to stop," Illya gritted through clenched teeth, hearing far too much Russia in his voice, and wondering what was so surprising.
Napoleon shook his head vehemently. "Hell no. Just. . . do that again." He hitched his hips a little and shivered. "Please."
With a silent, fervent thanks to a deity in which he didn't believe, and which certainly would not approve of what they were doing, Illya grinned, pulled back, and pushed in again, another long, slow thrust, not stopping this time, and aiming a little more deliberately. Napoleon arched up into the movement with a moan. After a few repetitions Napoleon was getting hard again, his cock sandwiched between Illya's belly and his own, getting friction inside and out, and Napoleon was urging Illya on with hands and voice and calves tight over his shoulders.
And it was so damned good, hearing 'yes' and 'more' and a string of obscenities he hadn't even known Napoleon knew in a whiskey-voiced rumble. And he fit. They fit. Perfectly. He was almost mindless with it, loving the lube-slick clutch around his cock with each thrust, the flex of strong muscles against his own. They matched.
At some point he forgot to be gentle, but that didn't seem to matter any more, it only seemed to make Napoleon clutch him harder, and finally he grabbed Illya by the hair and yanked his head down for a searing kiss as he came in hot, messy spurts all over his chest and belly.
The feel of Napoleon's body shuddering and clenching under him and around him, and the sound of the throaty whimper Napoleon gave as he did was more than enough to destroy the last vestige of Illya's control, and he gave one last, desperate hitch of his hips and let go in a gasping explosion of pleasure that seemed somehow just a little hotter and brighter than anything ever had before.
They lay there panting, until Illya realized Napoleon couldn't breathe very well in that position. He disengaged, remembering to be gentle again, but even so he felt Napoleon flinch as he eased out, and sent an apologetic look his way. Napoleon smiled a little ruefully, and sprawled out on the bed, legs spread, little grimaces of discomfort crossing his face as cramped muscles eased.
Illya lay on his back on what little of the bed remained for him, and replayed their encounter in his head, searching for whatever it was that was niggling at him. There was something. . . odd. Something off. A flash of the surprise on Napoleon's face as he'd slid home crossed his mind's eye, and he knew that was it. That reaction had seemed strange. What could possibly surprise Napoleon when it came to sex? Then he remembered the puzzled expression on Napoleon's face when he'd told him to turn over. The two things added up to an answer he couldn't quite believe. He turned his head and stared at him until Napoleon noticed and looked over with lifted eyebrows.
"You've never made love with a man face to face before?"
To his utter amazement, Napoleon blushed. "Uh, no, actually."
Illya turned over and rested his chin on his fist as he studied his partner intently. "You're joking."
"No." Napoleon frowned at him forbiddingly, clearly warning him off the topic.
Illya ignored the warning, as something else occurred to him. "Just how out of practice were you?"
"How long has it been since you were with a man this way?" he asked bluntly.
Napoleon sighed and stared at the ceiling. "About twelve years."
Illyaís chin slipped off his fist and he nearly bit his tongue. A cascade of probabilities ran through his head. Twelve yearsĖ Korea, probably. Military. Two young men, lonely, afraid, ignorant, and most likely parochial. Things began to make sense. There were a myriad of questions he wanted to ask, and he tried to sort out which was the most important. Finally, after a long, silent moment, he pushed up onto his elbows, leaned over, and kissed Napoleon as thoroughly as he knew how. Napoleon seemed startled at first, but finally he responded, and the kiss lasted a good long while. Finally Illya ended it, and settled back where heíd been, by Napoleonís side, Napoleon looked at him.
"Arenít you going to ask?"
Illya shook his head. He knew better. Napoleon looked faintly disappointed, so Illya took pity on him. "You let me think you'd let him have you," he complained with exaggerated distress.
A tiny, smug little smile quirked the corner of Napoleon's mouth for a fraction of a second and then was sternly erased. "Really, Illya, I have no control over what you think."
Illya snorted. "Of course not." He paused. "Bastard."
"I'll have you know that my parents were married when I was born."
"How long, a week? Two tops?"
Napoleon scowled at him. "Speaking of bastards."
"I never claimed to be anything else."
"Then who are those people you send your salary back to every month?"
"My mother, and sisters. Who are, by the way, also bastards. It runs in the family."
Napoleon turned a curious eye his way, and Illya shrugged. "My mother does not believe in marriage. She objects to institutionalized slavery."
"And she let you work for UNCLE?"
Illya laughed. "My salary outweighs her idealism."
"I see where you got your pragmatic streak." Napoleon shifted on the bed, and made a face. "I forgot about that part."
Illya rolled to his feet and went to the lavatory, taking a moment to clean himself up before returning with a warm, wet flannel for Napoleon. He waited as it was used, returned the wet cloth to the bathroom, and went back to zip his bag closed and remove it from the second bed, turning back the covers. "Come on, this one's fresh," he said with a nod toward its pristine surface.
Napoleon sat up, wincing a little, and moved over to that bed, sliding between the sheets . Illya stood for a moment, studying him thoughtfully. "About those rules I thought I understood. . ." he said leadingly.
Napoleon opened his eyes, looking dubious. "Rules?"
"Rules," Illya repeated, and moved to kneel on the bed straddling him, threading his fingers through Napoleon's, pressing his hands back against the mattress with enough insistence that Napoleon would have to work for it if he wanted to move. "I want to make sure we are clear on them from here on out." He lowered his voice and leaned close to Napoleon's left ear. "I wouldn't want us to have another misunderstanding."
He heard Napoleon swallow, and then clear his throat. "Ah, no. No misunderstandings. What kind of rules?"
"Just one, really," Illya said, shifting his weight to pin Napoleon more securely, and sitting up again so he could watch Napoleon's face. "I don't mind the girls, but no man gets to fuck you except me."
A little shiver ran through Napoleon as Illya finished speaking, and a spark lit his dark eyes. "Not even for a mission?"
Illya considered. "Only if there is no other way," he allowed, knowing there could someday be a mission where it was required.
Napoleon nodded. "Fair enough." He flexed his fingers, squeezing a little. "And no old friends in Paris for you?"
Illya didn't know why he was surprised. After all, he knew what Napoleon did for a living. He chuckled, and shook his head. "No old friends in Paris," he agreed. "With the same caveat for missions."
"Deal." Napoleon said. "So how shall we seal the pact?"
The answer was obvious, so Illya gave it.
* * *
Two days later, back in New York, back at work, back at the round table in Mr. Waverly's office waiting for him to arrive (sometimes Illya wondered if that table was deliberately meant to evoke Arthur and his knights or if it was inadvertent) Napoleon leaned across to poke him in the ribs.
"You're very mellow today. I thought you said you were always irritable in the mornings."
Illya signed. "You have a penchant for hyperbole, Napoleon. I said usually, not always."
"So you did. So what makes today unusual?"
He shook his head sadly. "Fishing for compliments is so undignified." Speaking of unusual, It had been decidedly strange to walk in and see Napoleon wearing Illya's Irish sweater under a tweed jacket. Not his usual style at all. Illya wondered if the statement he was making might not be just a touch too obvious.
"Well, I know why I'm in a good mood," Napoleon began with a leer, but then the door opened and Mr. Waverly entered the room, bearing several files and a notebook.
"Gentlemen," he said, acknowledging their presence, placing the files and notebook on the table before looking up. "The next mission should be a . . ." He stopped abruptly mid-sentence and just stood there, silently, regarding them with a thoughtful expression for long enough that Illya started to wonder if he had pastry crumbs on his face, but finally Waverly gave a short nod and cleared his throat. "Well, good to see that's finally out of the way."
Illya snuck a glance at Napoleon, who was looking just as baffled as Illya felt.
"Sir?" Napoleon asked.
"This will make things easier, I can officially partner the two of you now, rather than doing it unofficially. I dislike unofficiality. I don't know why on earth it took you two so long to resolve . . . whatever it was that needed resolving."
"Sir?" Illya echoed Napoleon.
Mr. Waverly looked exasperated. "No sensible person would bother doing all that paperwork until he was certain he wouldn't just have to undo it all again. Mr. Solo, pass me my humidor, thank you."
Illya somehow managed to keep his jaw from dropping but didn't quite succeed in avoiding lifting both eyebrows. In his peripheral vision he saw Napoleon sit bolt upright and suspected his expression echoed Illya's own as he moved to push the humidor closer to their superior.
"Now, as I was saying, this next mission should be relatively simple, your job is to courier some documents over to our office in Helsinki. These are vital documents, and must not be allowed to fall into THRUSH hands. . ."
His voice faded into the background as Illya stole another look at his apparently-now-official partner. Who shrugged with a rueful expression, and nodded at their superior, clearly suggesting they ought to be paying attention. Illya turned back to Mr. Waverly, and wondered if his life would ever seem normal again.
Perhaps he simply needed to redefine normal.
* * * Fin * * *
Vsesoyuznaya Pionerskaya: The Young Pioneers.
Union of Youth.
Prekrasniye: Lovely or gorgeous.
Vy krasivaya vesch': You beautiful thing.
kukuruznik: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kukuruznik See definition 3.
Gospodi pomiluy: Good Lord
golyye babushki : naked grandmothers