(Better Cut Off All) Identifying Labels
Jess Coleman stood in front of the full length mirror in his bathroom and checked his appearance. He looked great. A grin touched the corner of his mouth as he appraised his body—long, lean and fit—at six feet three inches tall Jess was perfectly proportioned for his height—his shoulders broad, his waist and hips trim. He worked out rigorously and used a tanning bed year round so he was always a deep, rich bronze. His black hair was still tousled from sleep and his brilliant deep blue eyes sparkled with anticipation of the pleasures before him. But even as he thought that his forehead creased. He was taking too long. Hastily he washed his hands, hurrying now because the man he had spent the night with was just as likely to be up and dressed and ready to leave as he was to be awaiting more lovemaking. Illya Kuryakin was as unpredictable as he was beautiful and Jess cautiously eased the bathroom door open, hoping against hope that Illya was still asleep, knowing it was a vain hope because Illya was a light sleeper and it was a rare day indeed that he stayed past the first light of dawn.
But today was Jess's lucky day. Illya was awake, true, but still in bed, still naked, his magnificent waist length blond hair spread out on the pillows, tumbled around that exquisite face; those wide blue eyes—the color of an autumn sky, Jess thought as he stopped and gazed at them admiringly—smiling back at him. Illya beckoned, and Jess crossed the room in two bounds and leaped onto the bed, rolling Illya over onto his back, kissing him greedily. Illya made him greedy because Illya was so delicious, and so elusive—even now, as he returned Jess's kiss, as he wrapped his arms around Jess's shoulders, his thin body seemed poised for flight. Jess kissed him some more, to dispel any notions of flight and then Illya touched him, stroked him, played with him and no one—no one knew more erotic tricks than Illya did, or was more generous in their application when the mood struck him and Jess stroked Illya in return because Illya was as responsive as he was skillful. Their lovemaking was fierce and passionate and—in the sweet, sweaty aftermath—too brief. Illya tried to push Jess off but Jess, sprawled full length on top, was too heavy for him.
"Get off," Illya said, laughing. "Get off, Jess." But then, when Jess just lay there, wanting to move; knowing he should but, for the moment at least, completely unable, Illya's voice sharpened and Jess couldn't tell whether it was with anger or fear. "I said get off!" Jess forced himself to move, to roll over and Illya sat up instantly, wrapping the sheet around him. "Weren't you listening to me? You know I hate that!"
"I'm sorry," Jess said contritely. He reached up, stroked Illya's hair. Anger now, definitely—if there had been fear it was gone. "The spirit was willing, my little Russian dessert, but the body was paralyzed." He tugged lightly at the lock of hair he'd twined around his fingers. "A state for which you bear some share of responsibility."
"Never mind the excuses. I can't breathe with you on top of me." But a faint smile was twitching the corners of Illya's mouth.
"Forgive me. I didn't mean to scare you."
"You didn't!" Illya pulled back, smile gone. "What do you mean, scare me? I'm not afraid of you, Jess Coleman! I could kill you..." suddenly he had leaned closer and one hand was on Jess's throat, thumb at his Adam's apple, two fingers at the side of his neck. Jess started to laugh and then Illya's fingers tightened and Jess was engulfed in swirling blackness, not unpleasant, but... tiny sparks flared in his vision, and then Illya released him. Jess gulped, rubbed his neck. "Like that," Illya finished, and lay back down. Jess turned his head to look at him.
"That was hardly called for," he said finally, and Illya shrugged. Then, when Illya sat up, began looking at the foot of the bed for his clothes, Jess caught his wrist. "Don't go yet—please?"
"Because—because I want you to stay. We could walk down to the corner and get some deli—you know you like Colonna's. We could get the Sunday paper and spend the morning in bed eating bagels and lox and sandwiches and potato salad and..."
"Each other," Jess finished, and gave Illya his most wicked grin. Illya wavered.
"Well... you know I like to get home on Sunday."
"Is it my fault this isn't Saturday morning? I asked you for Friday."
"I was busy." Illya smiled, batted his eyelashes at Jess, who was particularly susceptible to them.
"Busy, my foot. You were on a date."
"Well, I had to see how that new data entry technician would work out. He made me several interesting promises."
"I don't know why you waste your time with computer nerds," Jess grumbled. "He can't possibly have anything I haven't got."
"Few do," Illya said, and stroked what Jess had with his forefinger, making Jess jump and reach for him. Illya shook his head. "Touch me now and I'm leaving," he said and the glint in his eyes told Jess he wasn't kidding. So Jess lay back down and wondered how Illya could possibly arouse so many varying sensations with just one finger and, later, with the fingers of just one hand and, much later than that, with his mouth. When Jess was reduced to clutching the sides of the mattress with both hands to keep from reaching for his lover again Illya climbed on top, positioned himself just right, and leaned forward, mouth to Jess's ear. "You can touch me now," he whispered, and Jess grabbed those narrow hips, pulled him down, impaling him as he cried out with pleasure, then collapsed on Jess's chest while Jess finished it, smothering his own shout in Illya's open mouth.
They lay side by side, panting, for a long time. Finally Illya stirred, pushed his sweat damp hair off his face. "May I use your shower?"
"No. But next time I will, if you still want me to."
"I'll always want you to. When is next time?"
"Weekend after next. I'll come Friday night and stay till Sunday if you like.
"Really?" Jess at up, watched Illya stand, shake out his hair and start towards the bathroom. "The whole weekend? Promise?"
Illya stopped, and regarded Jess thoughtfully. "It means that much to you?"
"No," Jess said hastily . "Not really."
"Yes it does. I shouldn't, then."
"Yes you should. You know you should."
"Don't get serious on me, Jess. I really like you." He clasped both hands under his chin and affected a swoon. "You're the best. I don't let anyone else do—what we just did."
"Really?" He was delighted. Illya had implied as much before, but had never stated it right out like that. "No one else gets to fuck you?"
"No. And I wish you wouldn't talk like that. I don't like it."
"I know." Jess got up too, went over to stand in front of Illya, smiling down at him. Reaching out, he ran a finger across his lips. "You'll swallow my dick whole with that mouth, but ask you to say the words and you turn into a virgin."
Illya bit the caressing finger lightly. "You're pushing your luck." Serious again, he tipped his head back so he could look into Jess's eyes. "I trust you." He moved closer, so their bodies were pressed together. "That's why I let you do it. And don't say that word again!" Jess, grinning, had indeed been about to speak, but at that last he kissed Illya instead. Illya kissed him back, then laid his head on Jess's chest. Wordless, Jess embraced him. It was so rare, this tenderness—his arms tightened. "That's why I don't want you to get serious," Illya said, mouth warm against Jess's skin. "Because I like you. I don't want to end it."
"No," Jess whispered, resting his cheek on Illya's hair. "I don't want to end it either."
"Friends. There's no possibility of more, Jess. I told you that from the start."
"Yes you did. And I'm not asking for more. I have a date myself, Saturday night. But we are friends."
"And you trust me."
"Yes." Illya kissed his throat apologetically. "I am sorry if I hurt you." He kissed the spot again and felt Jess's arousal. He laughed a little. "I suppose you expect me to do something about that, now."
"I expect nothing," Jess said honestly. It was true. He didn't. Illya kissed him once more, then went down on his knees.
"Let me investigate this situation," he said breathily and Jess groaned, then had to brace himself on the wall while Illya did something about it. He did it with such expertise that within five minutes it was over and Jess stood and caught his breath while Illya went into the shower.
Dressed, and brushing his hair in front of the mirror, Illya smiled at Jess's reflection. "So. Who are you seeing Saturday night?"
"Alan Jackson from Communications."
"Been there done that," Illya said and tied his hair back into its ponytail.
"And? The verdict?"
"Unimaginative but willing." Illya pulled on his jacket. "It's funny, though, that he'd go out with both of us. You'd think that if I'm his type" he turned back to Jess "you wouldn't be."
"You're everyone's type. And..." he flexed his muscles and Illya laughed. "So am I,"
"True. I suppose that's why we're so good together."
"We still on for bowling Wednesday night?"
"Of course. I wouldn't miss it unless I had to work."
:"We could have a couple of beers after."
"No. I don't date during the work week. You know that. It's distracting."
"Which is? The work? Or the date?"
"The date." Illya frowned at him. "Work is real life. This..." he gestured, indicating the rumpled bed, and Jess, still naked. "Is extra. Is frosting."
"If it were real, it wouldn't be just frosting."
"It is real." Illya crossed over, reached up, kissed Jess lightly on the mouth. "It's really fun. I'll see you Wednesday."
Jess looked at him, then leaned over, kissed Illya in his turn. "Yes. And you have a good time this weekend."
Illya's face glowed. "Oh, I will. Napoleon and I are going camping. We're hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail."
"Guess you have to go to some lengths to get him away from all those women," Jess said, and regretted it when Illya's eyes snapped.
"It was Napoleon's idea! And he never sees women when we're together! It would be... it would be rude," he added, somewhat lamely, and Jess snorted.
"And of course you don't. See anyone else when you two are together."
"Of course not." Illya looked surprised. "Why would I?"
"Don't you miss it? You're used to a pretty steady diet."
"I told you. That's frosting. Napoleon is... he's..."
"Shut up. I'm not discussing Napoleon with you. It's different, that's all."
"Does he have any idea how wild you are when you're off duty—and not with him?"
"I don't know. He wouldn't ask. Just like I don't ask about his—his private life."
"So he doesn't know."
"If he asked me I'd tell him. I don't have any secrets from Napoleon. And it's not as if I'm ashamed—why should I be?"
"No reason. But I suspect he thinks you're pure as the driven snow, from the way he reacts when anyone so much as looks at you."
Illya blushed, obviously pleased. "That's only when he thinks I don't like it. He's—he's protective of me." He blushed some more. "Now stop it. I have to go."
"No you don't."
"I want to go. I want some time to myself before the weekend's over. Thank you, Jess." He kissed Jess's cheek this time. "It was fun."
"It certainly was. So long, Illya."
The first thing Illya did when he got home was strip, toss his clothes into the hamper and shower again. He had enjoyed his weekend—had enjoyed Greg, the data entry tech, had enjoyed Jess even more but once it was over and he was alone he washed it all off of him. Stepping out of the shower he stood in front of his full length mirror, much as Jess had. And, as Jess had, he took inventory and smiled at what he saw. Slim, graceful, elegant—Illya's body pleased him and he smiled again. And behind his seemingly delicate build he was strong, and fast, and trained—deadly. He was deadly. Beautiful, and deadly—he moved closer, looked at his face. His cheekbones were high, with faint hollows underneath, his nose aristocratic, his jaw line clean and perfect. His eyes were very blue—slanted just enough to make them enigmatic and exotic—shaded by long black eyelashes that fanned across the pale skin under them and Illya knew how to use them, knew how to barely flutter them, and how to bat them extravagantly, depending on the impression he wished to make; knew how to send a seductive glance sideways up through them, knew how to make his eyes big and admiring or narrow and inviting—there were a million and one tricks to flirtation and Illya knew them all. Because they were all avenues to pleasure, and Illya liked pleasure. Everything else was a means to that end. Now, as he stood looking at himself he dropped the mannerisms he sometimes affected, dropped his cool, mocking facade and faced himself squarely. He did this every night, after his shower, after it was all over, because otherwise he feared he might lose himself in his various personas and now, with the work week ahead, he needed to find his center again. Because, as he had said to Jess, everything else was frosting. Work was what mattered—work and his friendship with Napoleon, because that was real. But as he thought about it he frowned, turned away from the mirror.
'I wager he thinks you're as pure as the driven snow' Jess had said, and now that he thought about it Illya had to admit that Jess was probably right. It wasn't that he hid his private life from Napoleon, but it hardly seemed correct to talk about it—and surely Napoleon wouldn't want to hear it. Illya's frown deepened. He certainly knew about Napoleon's life—as varied and shallow as Illya's own.
Napoleon too dated frequently. Napoleon too went from bed to bed, tasting all the pleasures life had to offer an attractive single man. But Napoleon had never had to hide his proclivities the way Illya had in the beginning, because in the beginning Illya's proclivities might well have cost him his job. At that time, his job was his only means of staying in America. Now, of course, things were different, but there had been no opportunity to bring it to Napoleon's attention. What was he supposed to do, just casually mention—across a dinner table, perhaps, 'By the way, Napoleon, I have sex with an assortment of men. And I'll have the shrimp, please.' Illya was scowling now. That wouldn't do. But it didn't seem right for Napoleon to have so wrong a picture of him either. It seemed—deceptive. If Napoleon heard about it some other way, would he feel Illya had deliberately misled him? It wasn't as if Illya were ashamed—what was the difference e between what Napoleon did and what he did? No difference. But still—he knew about Napoleon. And Napoleon didn't know about him. Would Napoleon like him less if he did know?
Illya pulled on a nightshirt, poured himself a glass of wine and curled up on his sofa, staring at the blank TV screen. Why should it make a difference? He was the same person, wasn't he? The same person who had worked with Napoleon all those years, saved Napoleon's life and been saved in his turn—more than his turn. Napoleon always saved him. It was something he knew he could count on. He had hung on in situations where a quick death seemed infinitely preferable, because he knew Napoleon would save him. His relationship with Napoleon wasn't expendable to him. He needed Napoleon. He adored Napoleon. He would do anything for Napoleon, do anything Napoleon asked. Would walk through fire for him. Would lie down and die for him, if that were required. He had never felt this for another human being in his life. Even Jess—and Illya loved Jess, and trusted him, let Jess—Illya blushed at the word Jess had used and substituted his own—do that with him. But it was nothing in comparison to his feelings for Napoleon. And Napoleon loved Illya in his turn. How glorious it would be, the two of them together. Illya sighed, thinking of it. But it would never be. Napoleon was as fixed on women as Illya was on men. The frown returned. At least Napoleon had chosen his way. Illya's path had been set for him when he was so young—so very young he couldn't really remember a time when his body had been his own.
Illya had no memory of his parents—his uncle told him his father had died before even knowing his young wife was pregnant, and his mother had died in childbirth. Her older brother, Ivan Petrovich, had been the only surviving relative and, when Illya was nearly three years old he had been sent home from the hospital where he'd spent his entire life to live with his uncle in the big old family house in the Ukraine. The first thing his uncle had done was knock the three year old off his feet and down a flight of stairs. They were thickly carpeted stairs, so Illya hadn't been seriously injured, but the terror of tumbling and falling had been just as effective as the pain. Things had progressed from there. Illya hid from the big man who shared his home as best he could but he couldn't hide all the time. There were servants in the house—someone cooked the meals, someone cleaned up, but their presence went largely unnoticed by these two who hated each other and yet lived in an enforced intimacy. Why his uncle hated him Illya never knew. His own hatred had clear cut reasons.
When Illya was six his uncle raped him. Looking back Illya knew it could have been worse—his uncle had been careful, not wanting to have to make explanations to doctors—but at the time he didn't know it could be worse. Lying there, gasping and helpless under his uncle's weight—it was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to him. And as time went on and it continued Illya's fear of, and hatred for, this powerful man who ruled every aspect of his life only deepened.
When Illya was eight he went to school for the first time. Despite his late start he was a precocious learner—having taught himself to read before he was five. His quick mind soaked up everything presented to him and by the time he was ten he was in advanced classes. Encouraged by his teachers, who recognized his gifts, he studied widely in many different disciplines. He spent a great deal of time at school . One day while sitting in a psychology class, and listening to his teacher drone on about stimuli and response he sat up straight. Why—that was all true! He could see it in his very own home! His uncle's behavior was reinforced by the pain and fear he inflicted, as well as by the pleasure he got from the act. Illya couldn't stop his uncle, but perhaps he could alter his own response. He thought about it all that day and when he got home he tried it. He tried to hide his fear, and to control his pain. He tried every day, and every night, with everything he had in him. It wasn't easy. He tried not to scream aloud, he tried not to cry—but it was hard. He tried not to tremble and shrink away from those brutal hands and that was hard too. During the dreadful sexual assaults he tried to work mathematical formulae in his head, tried to find some safe quiet place in his mind where he could retreat and after what seemed an eternity his uncle began—incredibly, to lose interest. He still swung at Illya whenever he saw him, but Illya was quick on his feet and had become very good at hiding. Just as he felt he could perhaps endure his life until he grew up, there was another change.
"Be nice to him," his uncle rasped as he shoved his twelve year old nephew into the waiting car. "If I hear you weren't, I'll beat you within an inch of your miserable life."
Nice? Illya thought as the car drew to a stop outside a large house. Nice? He didn't know what that meant. But when the door opened and he looked into the small, piggy eyes of the man waiting for him he knew. He knew that look. And as he was undressed, as the man climbed into bed with him Illya closed his eyes and reached for his safe place. After a while, however, when all the man did was touch him and squeeze him he was curious enough to open his eyes.
"Why so sullen?" the man whispered. "Don't you like this?"
Illya started to say no, then hesitated. That probably wouldn't come under the heading of nice, so he nodded. The man stroked him and he jumped involuntarily. "Now you touch me," the man said urgently and obediently Illya did so, copying what the man had done, watching in wonder as he fell back onto the bed, moaning with pleasure. It had never been so easy. Illya was amazed, and later was amazed further when the man pressed money into his hands. "You don't have to tell Ivan about this," he said breathlessly. "You've been a very good boy. This is for you."
"Th-thank you." All the way home in the car Illya kept feeling the money in his pocket. Not only hadn't he been harmed, he had money! He had always known he would need money if he was ever to escape. His teachers, who knew their prize pupil had good cause to want to get away, had talked to him about scholarships, and foreign schools, but he would need airfare at the very least. He had never seen any possibility of getting his hands on cash, but here it was, right here! And it hadn't really been so bad! Nasty, touching that man and watching him squirm and convulse, but certainly far better than having his uncle force him. And he was on the road to freedom, with this crumpled bank note. Maybe—maybe if he did even better next time, the man would pay him more! He'd have to pay close attention. He could learn this too, just as he was so quick to learn everything else.
Illya learned fast. Within two years, as his customer list grew with his uncle's greed, his own hidden cache of money had increased to over two thousand US dollars. He had learned to ask for that, to ask prettily, with a flutter of his eyelashes, had learned when to ask, and who not to ask. He had learned to give pleasure in ways that brought little pain or discomfort to himself. Sometimes, of course, they insisted on the ultimate act and then all he could do was hide inside his mind until it was over, but mostly they were satisfied with his hands, and his mouth; with his delicate little body pressed against them, wrapped around them.
The first time one took the trouble to share his pleasure, to caress Illya and bring his now thirteen year old self to his own finish—well, that was better still, wasn't it. He began to encourage it, and found it pleased them to see him gasping and shuddering under their hands and it certainly made the time pass more quickly. Illya's body was extraordinarily sensitive to gentle touch after the years of brutality, and he could close his eyes and surrender to the waves of sensation sweeping through him while managing to shut out the various men whom he had been sent to please. And all the while his secret fund grew, and when he was seventeen years old, and had been accepted to Cambridge, he slipped out, and purchased his ticket.
He had gotten travel papers from one of his regular clients, appealing both to the man's deep rooted dislike of Illya's uncle as well as to the man's vision of himself as a benefactor; at the same time holding out the promise of unequaled delights, then using everything he knew to keep his promise. The man must have been satisfied, because the papers were still good when Illya bought his ticket. He came home that night and packed his suitcase.
When his uncle came in Illya was ready for him. He stood, only seventeen years old, small still and thin, pale and resolute. "I'm leaving," he said. "I'm going away to school. I have a scholarship, and my ticket. I'm leaving and never coming back. And if you try to stop me..." he backed away, putting the desk between him and his uncle, who had advanced, fists clenched. "I'll kill you."
"You dare!" his uncle roared. He made a lunge for Illya, who sidestepped, still keeping the desk between them. "I'll break you in two with my bare hands! I'll rip you to pieces! I'll have you begging for death long before it comes!"
"You can't catch me," Illya answered, forcing himself to appear calm, despite his racing heart, despite the terror the man could still instill in him. "And you have to sleep sometimes. And eat. I'll kill you. I'll run and I'll hide and you won't know where I am and then sometime I'll kill you." His calm deserted him and his eyes were blazing, his cheeks aflame. "I hate you! Don't you think I hate you? Look at what you've made me! I'm a whore! Your whore! I hate you, I hate them—I hate my life! Kill me then if you can catch me!" And as his uncle came across the desk at him Illya bolted for the door. He stopped there, suitcase still in hand. "Stay away from me!" he spat. "I'm—don't you know I'm dangerous? Don't you know I'd kill you as soon as look at you? I hate you!" He grabbed up a poker standing by the door and threw it. His uncle dodged aside just in time. In rapid succession Illya threw a marble paperweight, a heavy doorstop and a mahogany walking cane. When his uncle snatched up the cane and came after him Illya ran. He ran out the front door and down the path to the gate. His uncle gave chase but Illya was right. He was young, and fit, and his uncle was middle aged and had long overindulged in rich food and vodka. He stopped, wheezing, halfway to the gate and Illya began throwing rocks. There was a plentiful supply of them and under the hail of missiles his uncle retreated. Illya turned and ran again.
At the juncture with the main road he was picked up as promised by a limousine, and spent the ride to the airport returning the favor the only way he knew how, on his knees, taking what pleasure he could in his imminent freedom. Once safely on the plane he stared out the window. It was dark by then and all he could see was his own ghostly reflection. Never again, he thought savagely. No one is touching me ever again! Ever! I'll kill anyone who tries! No one is ever touching me again!
His resolve held for the first two months of school, but then, when the handsome young man who was his lab partner made his wishes known, Illya wavered. He well remembered how good it could be, sometimes—and this time he'd be in charge. He'd say what they did together, and what they didn't do. And his friend was pleasant, attractive and close to Illya's own age, not old and disgusting. Why not take pleasure? So he let the lab partner seduce him, enjoying immensely his newfound power to say yes, or no, to dictate the pace, and the intensity—to send Carl away when it was over.
Illya found he had a whole new set of lessons to learn, and he made his own rules. He had studied philosophy, and history, and he knew the kind of man he wanted to be. He wanted to be a good man, not like his uncle, not like those other men who convinced themselves that a child was fair game. Illya wanted to have integrity, for his word to mean something, for people to respect him. He wanted to respect himself. So he was scrupulously honest and fair with his partners—he gave pleasure with interest for pleasure received, he never deceived them as to his intentions and if they seemed to have softer feelings for him he ended it—as gently as he could. Most of them wanted to do—that, with him, and occasionally he met someone he trusted enough to allow it, but that was rare. Jess Coleman was the first in a very long time.
It worried Illya, a little, that Jess seemed perilously close to falling in love with him. He really liked Jess—loved him, in a way. He didn't want to have to finish it. Promising to spend a whole weekend with him wasn't really showing the best judgment. But he was going to do it anyway. He'd need Jess, then. Because this weekend he was spending with Napoleon, and he knew already that it would be a time of unalloyed happiness—it always was—but its ending would leave him sad, too. Because he was in love with Napoleon. Desperately, passionately, hopelessly in love.
He hid it, of course, because if Napoleon even suspected—he would end their friendship. Gently, the way Illya always did it, but firmly—and for the same reasons. Because Napoleon was a good man. A man of integrity. Exactly the sort of man Illya had wanted to become. Napoleon was the best man he'd ever known. Napoleon would never want to hurt Illya, but he would end it. So when their camping trip was over, when they packed up their equipment and flew back to Manhattan, Illya knew he would be sad, and lonely, and missing Napoleon.
He would get through the work week, because work was the anodyne for everything, but when work ended on Friday afternoon he would need Jess. He would need to sleep in those strong arms, to drown sorrow in passion. When he woke up, instead of lying there missing Napoleon, missing something he'd never had and never would have, he would to turn into Jess's comforting embrace and let Jess make love to him again. He would need that all weekend long, until Sunday night when he would go home and make ready to lose himself in work once more.
It was a beautiful afternoon. Napoleon shifted his backpack, touched his canteen to be sure it was still there, and turned to check on Illya. His partner was several paces behind him, face flushed with exertion and pleasure. As their eyes met Illya smiled at Napoleon, his most brilliant smile, and Napoleon smiled back—pleased with Illya's obvious happiness, pleased with the day, pleased with their being together. He turned back and continued along the trail. They had started out at six that morning, and it was now nearly four. Soon it would be time to camp. They had passed a few other hikers earlier in the day, but it had been some time now since they had seen anyone. That suited both men down to the ground. They had passed the day in perfect accord—speaking little, communicating volumes with an occasional glance. Now Napoleon settled in for the last part of the trek. They had been climbing for a long time, and when he reached the point he'd been looking for he swung off the main trail, onto a smaller side path. Illya followed, taking the branches Napoleon considerately held aside for him, avoiding the roots and boulders that littered this seldom used byway. It opened out after another hour's walking into a lovely little clearing. A stream ran behind it, and a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains lay in front. Napoleon dropped his pack and Illya followed suit. They set up their two man tent, unrolled their sleeping bags and tied their food packs on a tree a prudent distance away from their campsite. Illya went foraging for wood while Napoleon set out their communications equipment. Napoleon couldn't be out of touch for more than a couple of hours, much less two days, but he had left strict orders that nothing under a Priority One emergency was to justify interrupting his trip. Illya returned with an armful of wood and Napoleon accompanied him on his second foray, both of them loading up with tinder as well as large logs that should keep burning for hours. Finished, they stood and surveyed their little kingdom with pleasure. "There's a waterfall pool further up that path," Napoleon said finally. "I know you like someplace to swim."
"And there are supposed to be fish in it too," Napoleon went on, "so unless you have your heart set on a dinner of protein bars, we should go see if we can catch some."
"All right." Illya accepted his rod and followed Napoleon into the darker woods. It took nearly half an hour of following the little stream but it was well worth the walk. A thin waterfall skimmed the rock face far above them, emptying into a deep pool. They settled down on a large flat boulder, backs propped comfortably against each other, each with a baited line in the water. Napoleon dabbled at it with his fingers and whistled.
"That's cold. Are you going in?"
"No. I can wait for tomorrow."
"It wouldn't be good for you now anyway—you're overheated from the walk." Napoleon heard the lecturing sound in his voice and fell silent. Illya was a grown man, and certainly—he felt Illya's head against his back, tucked between his shoulder blades, and chuckled. "You won't catch much looking up at the sky that way."
"Do you mind?"
"Of course not." Napoleon tipped his own head back to rub it against Illya's. It felt good, and he smiled. "Comfortable?"
"Yes—wait, I've got one!" He leaned forward to reel it in and Napoleon didn't even have time to realize that he was disappointed at the loss of contact before his own line dipped into the water. The fish were biting in earnest and within the hour they had enough for an ample meal.
They ate fresh fish fried over the fire, apples, protein bars and some homemade fudge Napoleon had brought. "Jillian," he said in explanation, mouth full and Illya took another piece, followed it with the beer they'd had chilling in the stream.
"Your sister is a wonderful cook."
"Tell her thank you for me."
"Why don't you call her yourself? She likes hearing from you."
"All right. I will." He smiled into Napoleon's eyes and Napoleon smiled back. It was pleasant, being with Illya. He felt himself fortunate indeed to have such a friend—someone he could trust, absolutely—and moreover someone whose company made him so happy. It was why he had been resolved, when the fieldwork ended, not to let their friendship fade away. What he and Illya had was worth saving, worth devoting time and energy to. They ate lunch together at least twice a week, and sometimes more often than that. The third weekend of every month they spent together unless something urgent intervened, and then Napoleon rescheduled promptly. Illya was his best friend. They were lucky to have one another. He knew that Illya valued their friendship as much as he himself did. And every time they were together like this, the bond seemed to strengthen. He had to smile at Illya now, eating chocolate, drinking beer, sated from fish and sun and exercise. His eyes were drooping, and Napoleon laughed softly, reached over and brushed Illya's nose with the back of his finger.
"Ready to turn in?"
"Yes," Illya confessed. "I'm sorry it's so early."
"Not that early. It's ten o'clock. Want to sleep out here?"
"That's fine. It's a beautiful night."
"Yes it is." Napoleon helped Illya arrange their sleeping bags in front of the tent, under the stars, and after they cleaned up their meal and rinsed off in the stream, they stripped and climbed in. They were close enough that they could talk easily, and they did, chatting about work, and people they knew, and their plans for the next day. Both liked the spot they'd found so they agreed that they would stay around the area and arrange to be picked up by car at a closer location. Just the prospect of so much time together made both happy. After they had been quiet for a while, Napoleon turned his head so he could see Illya's profile, pure and clean, the corners of his mouth turned up in a little smile. He smiled too.
"I have something I want to—need to discuss."
"I have a concern."
"It may sound intrusive—in fact it's probably none of my damn business, and if that's the case just tell me so."
Illya raised his eyebrows. "All right."
"It's—ah, it's about Jess Coleman."
"Jess?" Illya's surprise showed in his voice. Napoleon shifted uncomfortably, but pressed on.
"Yes. I—I know you two are friends, and that you do a lot of things together."
"Bowling and ice skating and so forth."
"This is nothing against him, but are you aware—I mean, do you know that what he wants is to be more than friends? With you?"
"More—more than friends?"
"Do you even know—I mean, it's no secret, but do you know he's gay?"
"Because I really think he's interested in you. Sexually." There. He'd gotten it out. "Now you can tell me to mind my own damn business."
Illya didn't answer for a long time. But he reached out and patted Napoleon's arm through his sleeping bag. "It can be your business," he said finally. "I don't mind. That you—that you are concerned—it's the sweetest thing in my life."
"Well." Napoleon patted Illya in his turn. "I just thought you should know. Want me to say something to him?"
"No, thank you. Napoleon—Jess and I have been lovers for over eight months now."
Napoleon's mouth fell open. He'd had several scripted responses in his head, answers to anything he thought Illya might say, but that last statement wasn't on the list. "Ah—excuse me?"
"Never mind. I heard you. Give me a minute." He stared at the stars. Illya, and Jess—lovers? Illya, and anyone? "I had no idea."
"I try to be circumspect."
"You do very well." There was another long silence. "Eight months."
"So—so you're pretty serious, then. The two of you. But Coleman—" a new worry. "Do you know he sees other people?"
"Yes. So do I."
Napoleon managed to keep his mouth from falling open again. "You do?"
"But—so you're not serious? With Coleman?" And why was that a relief? He didn't know.
"I'm seriously his friend. He's the only man right now I would even call a lover. But I see lots of men." Illya stopped, then, "I sleep with lots of men."
"You do." Napoleon's voice was faint.
"Yes." There was such a long silence that Illya rolled onto his side, facing Napoleon. "Do you—do you still like me?"
"Of course!" The response was quick, and true. Illya lay back down again.
"Good. I was afraid—I suppose I was afraid you wouldn't."
"No—I'm surprised, that's all. I had no idea."
"Well—it's never really come up."
"No, I suppose not. But you know about me. I mean—I'm the same. Not exactly the same, but the same."
"I know. But it's different, Napoleon. Back in the day, when we were in the field together, it was really different. I would have been fired. And then deported. And even now—it's still different."
"It shouldn't be," Napoleon said fiercely, already angry at anyone who might judge Illya. "It damn well shouldn't be."
"I'm glad you brought it up, Napoleon. I felt badly, that you had a such a different image of me but it never seemed a good time to mention it."
"I can see that." They were quiet again. "Do you ever find it empty, Illya?"
"Yes. It's an empty pleasure, really. But a pleasure nonetheless."
"Yes." Both were silent, then. They lay quietly side by side, staring at the sky, and Napoleon fell asleep soon after.
Illya looked at Napoleon, asleep in the moonlight. He turned on his side again, so he could watch. In that moment his buried feelings for Napoleon swelled in his heart, creating a nearly unbearable sense of loss, and sorrow. He yearned towards the other man with a powerful blend of love, and desire, and a wish that he could just move that half a foot or so closer, be pressed up against Napoleon, be enveloped in those arms. It seemed incredible that Napoleon could sleep so serenely, so close, and be untouched by Illya's love. Illya slept, after a while, but his sleep was broken by dreams in which Napoleon reached for him, gathered him in, touched him, pleasured him. Each separate dream was so real that Illya's heart leaped for joy, and then his eyes opened and Napoleon was still lying on his back, asleep; oblivious to his partner's fantasies which grew more vivid and more erotic as the night wore its slow way on towards dawn. Illya slept, felt Napoleon's lips on his throat, rejoiced and woke—saw Napoleon still unmoving, and slept again, only to feel Napoleon's hands on his back, in his hair... his eyes flew open and Napoleon still slept. It was a very long night and Illya held on to it jealously because for all the turmoil it brought him, it was still wonderful to be so close to his love.
Napoleon reached for Illya, pulled him close against his hard, strong body and Illya turned into that embrace, burying his face in Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon inserted his hand between Illya's legs and Illya closed his thighs around it, pulse racing, breathing ragged... he opened his eyes. Napoleon slept on, still on his back, still that maddening six inches away, the thickness of two sleeping bags between them. The disappointment was savage. Dawn was in the sky, Illya could see clearly around them, and bird song filled the air. He lay still, fists clenched, and became aware that he was still aroused—embarrassingly aroused if Napoleon should wake up. Carefully he slid out of his sleeping bag, stepped into shorts and sneakers and, tugging his T shirt over his head, he made his way along the narrow path to the pool.
On arrival he stripped again and plunged in, the shock of the icy water instantly removing any remnants of his dream. He swam vigorously, trying to warm his blood, to get used to the cold, then turned over and floated on his back. His restless sleep had left him tired still and he drowsed in the water, drifting in and out of awareness as his body drifted with the current.
After a while he opened his eyes again and Napoleon was standing on the edge, watching him. Illya squinted, but couldn't make out Napoleon's expression—the sun was behind Napoleon's head and all Illya could see was his shape. Napoleon would be able to see him clearly, however, and Illya was grateful again for the cold water. He smiled up at Napoleon, but couldn't tell if Napoleon smiled back. Napoleon was certainly watching him very intently and Illya wondered suddenly if Napoleon found him beautiful. It was a new thought, and it made him turn so red he flipped over in the water and dove under, deep, skimming the bottom before rising to the surface on the far side of the pool. Did Napoleon think he was beautiful? If Jess saw Illya floating there, naked, hair spread out on the water, he would have been in after him already. But Napoleon wasn't Jess. Napoleon sought—and found—beauty in women.
For something to do, something to turn his thoughts in a different, more appropriate direction, Illya began climbing the rock face on the side of the waterfall. He climbed with caution—waterfalls were dangerous, and the surface was slick. He moved from handhold to handhold, feeling for each step before leaving the last, but he was young, and superbly fit, and his upward progress was swift. The exercise took all of his concentration, and he stopped thinking about the man watching him.
Napoleon watched Illya climb, awed by his grace. There was no awkwardness, no hesitation. Illya might have been climbing a ladder instead of the treacherous cliff face he was actually scaling. Napoleon had been watching him float, and wanting to join him, when he had disappeared into the depths. Now, again, he was moved. When Illya reached the top he walked over until he was standing on a rock outcropping, close enough to the falls that he was half hidden in the spray. It must be windy up there—Illya's hair, even wet, moved and snapped in the breeze, now out behind him, now covering his face. He stood for another moment then leaped out into space in a perfect swan dive. He seemed to hang there, suspended in the mist, back arched, arms out, head back—that glorious hair a bright banner behind him. It was the most beautiful sight of Napoleon's life. Illya flew, only the rushing walls behind him indicating that he was falling and then, at the last minute he brought his arms together, turned them and his head down and slipped into the water. There was not the smallest splash, just a spreading circle of ripples showing where he had been. Napoleon exhaled and realized with surprise that he had forgotten to breathe. It had been a perfect moment, a moment out of time, and he knew the image had been burnt into his brain, that any time he wished he could close his eyes and see Illya falling through space, see Illya slice through the surface of the water and disappear.
Then anxiety stirred. Where was he? What was taking him so long? Could he have hit his head, broken his neck... Napoleon took a step towards the edge, ready again to go in after him and became aware, with a rush of heat to his face, that he was fully aroused. Early morning erection, he told himself, but he didn't want Illya to see it, especially after their talk last night. Perhaps Illya would be offended, think that Napoleon regarded him differently now, thought of him the way Napoleon thought of his casual women—so when Illya's head broke the surface only feet from the place Napoleon was standing, Napoleon didn't hesitate. He jumped off, brought his legs up to hide his condition and hit the water with a tremendous splash, swamping Illya and sending him back under. He surfaced with a cry of delight and leaped on Napoleon, who laughed, twisted in the water and threw him off. They wrestled strenuously for almost an hour, alternately ducking and being ducked, playing hide and seek behind the boulders and in the thick rushes growing along one edge, swimming underwater until lungs ached to surprise the other, and neither knew that the other was just as thankful for the effects of the cold water as he was.
Finally they climbed out, panting, and stretched out full length on the large flat rock they had fished from. Side by side they lay while the sun climbed in the sky, ending their shivers, baking them dry, making them warm and relaxed and comfortable. "Illya?"
"Jess is good to you, isn't he?"
"Yes. I think—I think he'd like it to be more than it is, but he knows it won't be. I hope."
"If that's really what he wanted, he could start by being faithful."
Illya laughed. "If he started that, I'd end it. It would mean he was too serious and there's no point to encouraging that. It wouldn't be fair."
"So you're not—you're not in love with him?"
"No." Illya turned his head to watch Napoleon, and looked surprised that Napoleon was watching him. Their eyes held briefly, then Illya lowered his.
What long eyelashes you have, Napoleon thought. "Don't you believe in love?" he asked instead.
"Yes." Illya didn't elaborate. He peeked at Napoleon under his lashes and, when he met those brown eyes, hastily looked away, his cheeks flaming.
"Have you ever been in love?"
Illya visibly wavered. "I'd rather not answer that," he said finally. Napoleon bit his lip.
"I'm sorry. That was too personal."
"It's all right. What—what about you? Do you believe in love?"
"In the abstract? Yes. Have I ever felt that way about anyone—romantic love, I mean, not family or—or a friend? I don't know." His voice was troubled and Illya turned to look at him again. Napoleon, whose gaze had turned inward, didn't notice. "I wonder—I wonder if I would even know it if..." he focused on Illya who, caught, looked back. "If it was right in front of me," Napoleon finished. How blue Illya's eyes were, and why was Illya blushing so? He reached out, laid the back of his hand on Illya's face and those eyes widened. For one moment it seemed to both men that Napoleon was about to reach out, to pull Illya, naked as he was, into his arms, that they stood on the edge of a momentous action that would change both their lives forever, then Napoleon's hand fell away, and Illya swallowed and veiled his eyes again. Napoleon sat up. "An empty pleasure," he said, remembering Illya's words from the night before. "And is an empty pleasure better than—nothing?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes nothing is better. This is better."
"This is always better," Napoleon said fiercely. "Illya—never doubt that this—you, and me, and what we have—this is the best thing in my life. There is nothing empty about this."
"No. For me too, Napoleon. Everything else is filler. There's you—and work. The rest is expendable."
"Friendship, and work—and empty pleasure. Is that enough, Illya, to make up a life?"
"What other choice is there?" It didn't seem to be a rhetorical question—Illya looked as if he really wanted to know. His eyes were serious as he waited, his question hanging in the air between them. Napoleon sighed.
"Next trip," he said, getting up and Illya following suit, "I'll take you to a five star hotel and bury you in decadent bourgeois" he almost said pleasures and caught himself just in time "luxury," he finished awkwardly and put on his clothes. Illya did the same, then followed him down the trail in silence.
When Jess opened his door to Illya's knock that Friday night Illya went into his arms like a traveler seeking refuge. He said nothing, just put his head down on Jess's broad chest and let Jess hold him. Jess, who knew more than Illya thought he did about the cause for Illya's unhappiness, drew him inside, pushing the door closed with his foot. They stood like that for a long time, and then Illya lifted his face for Jess's kiss. It was brief, but warm and full of promise, then Jess led him into the bedroom. He removed Illya's clothes slowly, carefully, and laid him down on the bed before removing his own. It stayed slow, and careful, all the way through. Illya tried to hurry, but Jess kept the pace unrushed, and after the first few minutes Illya sighed and let Jess have his way. Soon enough his body was responding to Jess's touch, and he was moving, following Jess's rhythm until the finish. He fell back onto the bed, Jess's arms still strong around him his cheek on Jess's shoulder. Jess kissed his forehead, smoothed the tangled hair off his face, saying nothing, not wanting to seem to force confidences. He had seen Illya's eyes Monday morning, and knew that something had happened between those two, and that it was nothing that brought Illya any joy. Jess thought Napoleon Solo was a fool. Illya's heart was on his face every time he looked at the man, and any man who was fortunate enough to have won Illya's love, yet turned it away, didn't deserve it. But Jess, after waiting for a long time, only said "How was your meeting today?"
"Did you get that grant you were going for?"
"Well, good. Congratulations. It's quite a feather in your cap, isn't it?"
"I suppose. George was pleased." George Piper was Illya's lab partner, a happily married man in his late fifties who petted and spoiled Illya in what Jess often teased was a disgraceful fashion. Usually any mention of George, the only real father he'd ever had, brought a smile to Illya's face and it did tonight, too—a small one, but a smile nonetheless. "Don't talk any more, Jess. I want to go to sleep."
"All right." It was early, but Jess understood. Illya wanted to slide down the gentle slope of afterglow into an easy sleep, and from the shadows under his eyes it would be for the first time this week. So Jess held him, kept smoothing his hair and after a few minutes felt Illya go lax in his arms. It took Jess longer, but eventually he turned his head so it was resting on Illya's, and succumbed to sleep himself.
The next morning they both slept in. Jess awoke to Illya's mouth on him, all over him, teasing him and coaxing him and, finally, bringing him to a raucous, noisy finish. Done, Illya sat up and smiled at him, blue eyes sparkling. There was no trace of last night's moodiness and, delighted, Jess smiled back. "Good morning."
"Good morning, Jess. And thank you for last night." Illya kissed the tip of one finger, pressed it to Jess's lips. "It was just what I needed."
"Was it that bad, last weekend?"
"No, of course not. It was wonderful. It's always wonderful." He laughed a little. "You remember what you said about him thinking I was pure as the... what was it?"
"That's right. Well, I worried about that, a little, because it didn't seem... but then he brought it up."
"Brought what up?"
"Well, you actually. He warned me about you."
"What do you mean warned you?" Jess was indignant. "Does he think I'd hurt you?"
"No—well, yes, I suppose, but not like you're thinking. He warned me that you might have an interest in me—you know."
"No he didn't."
"Yes. He asked me if I wanted him to speak to you." Illya's laugh pealed out. "I didn't think of it then but I should have said yes. It would have been funny."
"No it wouldn't. It would have been scary as hell. Don't ever sic Solo on me, Illya, please."
"What do you mean? You're not afraid of Napoleon."
"Yes I am. We all are. You're the only one who isn't. Haven't you ever felt the sharp edge of his tongue? Or gotten one of those looks?" Jess shuddered dramatically and Illya laughed again.
"No. Don't be ridiculous. I told him about us. And then—I told him about the rest of them."
"How did that go?"
"All right. He took it pretty well. He said it was no different from what he does. But he was surprised."
"Well, you look so sweet and demure, Illya. You can't blame him for being surprised."
Illya batted his eyelashes at Jess. "Me? Sweet and demure?"
"Yes, you. And you know it too. Look at me like that again."
"Like this?" Illya fluttered his eyelashes some more and laughed when Jess seized him, tried to pin him on his back. He wriggled a little, turned sideways instead and sighed with satisfaction when Jess fitted himself against his back, both on their sides, clasped together, moving just a little at first, then more... Illya pushed his face into the pillow to stifle his cry and Jess, who had no such inhibitions, shouted aloud behind him. Illya turned over to smile into his eyes. "Don't you worry about your neighbors?"
"No. The hell with them." Jess kissed him, and Illya kissed him back. "So if it went well, why so blue last night? All week?"
"I don't know. It was wonderful—it's always wonderful, but then it's over. And I can't help feeling he's crossed me off his to do list—'weekend with Illya for August, check' and moved on. And I—it's not so easy for me."
"I don't think it's like that." Jess was serious. "Solo cares about you. Everyone knows it. It's just not the way you want."
"Do I? Want it to be that way?"
"I don't know."
"I would think it'd be frightening. That's one driven, obsessive man. To have all that focused on you—wouldn't it make you feel trapped, a little? He'd never go for this... the two of us." Jess stroked Illya's side, making him arch, and purr a little.
"Well, there's no point in talking about it. And he wouldn't like it if he knew. And I'm hungry. Let's go get that deli you promised me."
"I'm in. Want to shower first?"
"No." Illya sniffed the warm place behind Jess's ear. "Let's just get dressed and walk down the street smelling like sex and each other. Then we can come back here, take off each other's clothes and jump right back in bed. With our food."
"You're a shameless little tramp," Jess said, but he followed Illya's suggestion anyway. "And I love you for it." He stopped short, in the middle of tying his shoe. He hadn't ever said the word before and Illya, who had dressed more quickly, paused while tying his disheveled hair back and gave him a quizzical look. "Don't get nervous now," Jess said, laughing but a little nervous himself. "I don't mean it like that."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Or I'd never be able to think of you with anyone else—or be with anyone else myself. I'm nowhere near that place."
"In fact—if you want I'll talk to Solo for you."
"I'll tell him what he's missing, and what a—" Illya had crossed the floor and was standing right in front of Jess, very close.
"Don't you dare," he said, quietly but intensely. "Don't you even think it. Don't you ever say anything to him about me. Ever. It would ruin it."
"Then he's a bigger fool than even I thought."
"Don't call Napoleon names." Illya had stiffened. "Don't make me hurt you, Jess."
"All right." He was miffed, but smiled anyway. "I didn't realize it was such a touchy subject."
"It's more than touchy. It's my life. Don't—don't get in it."
"Fine." His feelings were hurt, now, and, seeing it, Illya moved the last step that brought them together.
"I love you too, Jess," he said, and stood on his toes so he could wind his arms around Jess's neck, kiss his mouth. "I only love three people in the whole world, and you're one of them."
"Thank you." Jess returned the hug, and the kiss, and then they separated and went downstairs, out into the street, and each of them thought the other smelled just fine.
Napoleon called Illya on his office phone at ten o'clock Tuesday morning—only two hours away from their regular lunch date. "Hey."
"Napoleon? What's wrong?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Your voice. You're not meeting me for lunch, are you."
"No. I can't. But I want to move the time up on Thursday, take two hours. Can you meet me at eleven at the Villa Rosa?"
"I want to talk to you, and I want to do it in comfort and privacy."
"Why not today? I can get off at eleven."
Lying to Illya was never an option. "I haven't worked out everything in my own mind yet."
"But by Thursday you will have."
"By Thursday I should have," Napoleon agreed.
"Is something the matter?"
"No. Just—some things I want to bring up."
"All right." Illya sounded unconvinced, and Napoleon tightened his grip on the phone.
"There is nothing wrong between us," he said, not wanting Illya to worry. "I promise. It's nothing like that. You and I—we're fine."
"Oh." Illya's voice was relieved, but only for a moment. "You're all right, aren't you? You're not sick or anything?"
Napoleon laughed. "No. I'm fine too."
"All right. I'll see you Thursday, Napoleon."
"I'll be looking forward to it."
Illya took a cab to the Villa Rosa. He had hovered anxiously in front of his office mirror, wanting to look nice, but not as if he had fussed. He wore the light grey suit Napoleon had given him for Christmas last year, over a charcoal grey turtleneck. He had combed his hair severely straight and fastened his ponytail tightly so no stray hairs would escape because Jess said that always drove him wild with the desire to pull it all out and run his hands through it and he didn't want Napoleon to think... ready, Illya surveyed himself and was satisfied. He looked cool, and composed, and professional—but the color was high in his cheeks and his eyes were brilliant because something was up, he knew it, had wondered all week, remembering that moment on the rock when Napoleon had touched his face—and then withdrawn. And now Napoleon wanted to talk. Well, there was no harm in looking attractive for that talk, was there? And he did, no question. Cool, composed—and lovely. He smiled at his reflection and turned to go.
At the door he gave Napoleon's name and was escorted through the main dining area to a small private room in the back. "Mr. Solo said he might be a few minutes late," the maitre d' said apologetically. "Would you like a drink while you wait?"
Illya thought. Wine would add a romantic touch but that might be a bit obvious—besides, they both had to return to work. "A sparkling water please," he said instead and seated himself. A basket of hot rolls was placed in front of him with his water and he pulled one apart nervously. When the door opened again he turned and Napoleon was conferring with the waiter. He smiled at Illya.
"Want me to order?"
"Yes, please," Illya said because this was Napoleon's show. He would have planned the meal as carefully as he had no doubt planned the conversation.
"I'm sorry about Tuesday." He sat down across from Illya.
"That's all right. Jess and I ordered pizza in." Illya said that deliberately and saw Napoleon's eyes narrow. He was right, then. Napoleon was jealous of Jess—jealous of their intimacy, which Illya knew Napoleon had always believed was between the two of them alone. He had thrown Napoleon off balance, a little, and that was just fine. It wasn't really fair that Napoleon knew exactly what was going on and he didn't. Napoleon had had almost two weeks to work whatever it was out in his mind and now he was going to spring it on Illya and Illya would have to improvise while Napoleon was working from a script. Well, Napoleon had had a script Saturday night at their campground, hadn't he. And that hadn't gone the way he'd planned. Illya thought all this while he watched Napoleon over the rim of his water glass, and then Napoleon smiled again.
"Score one for you," he said, and lifted his own water in a salute. "But this isn't a game. I'm serious."
"I've been thinking, ever since that weekend. Thinking about friendship—and empty pleasures."
"What about them?"
"Does it satisfy you, or are you tired of it?"
"I'm not tired." Illya lifted his glass in his turn. "To empty pleasure."
"You said that already."
"And afterwards? After they—or you—go home? Doesn't the emptiness trouble you then?"
"I don't go home. I spend the night."
"Do you." Napoleon's lips twitched. "I suppose you would. You always did hate getting out of bed. The next day, then."
"You tell me first." Illya stopped talking as the waiter returned with their appetizers. He looked at the stuffed mushrooms with appreciation. "Thank you, Napoleon. I love these."
"I know." Napoleon tossed his own salad. He looked put out—he'd obviously expected Illya to answer his questions without hesitation and, moreover, to give the answers he wanted to hear. And Illya would, he supposed, of course he would. But Napoleon would have to try a little harder. And even as he thought that, Napoleon spoke again. The lightness had left his voice, and he looked directly into Illya's eyes.
"I find it empty. I find the aftermath disturbingly empty. That's why I send them home. I'd rather be empty alone. And then I lie there and wonder what's the point of it all. Of anything." He looked so somber as he said it that Illya put down his glass, reached out and touched Napoleon's arm.
"It's not that way for you?"
"Yes. I just don't think about it."
"What do you think about instead?"
"Work—or nothing. I try to think about nothing."
"Me too." The waiter returned and Illya was embarrassed to realize he still had his hand on Napoleon's arm. He withdrew it, and was further chagrined to realize he was blushing. Imperturbable, the waiter cleared away their empty plates and set dinner in front of them. Illya smiled at his enormous steak. "This is perfect, Napoleon. And I can take some home for later."
"I thought of that. I know you like to. And you can't get steak like this anywhere else." Sides of pasta and Italian breadsticks completed their meal and Illya fell to with enthusiasm. Napoleon ate in silence as well, and it wasn't until they were both finished, and the remainder of their food was cleared away that Napoleon spoke again. "I'm never empty—or lonely—when we're together."
"I've wondered.- I can't help wondering—if gender would make such a difference." He grinned suddenly. "There. I've said it." Illya put down his coffee spoon.
"But it is a difference, Napoleon. A big difference." He realized what he'd said and flushed hotly. "Well, not that big—I mean... never mind." He was mortified. Napoleon reached over, covered Illya's hand with his own.
"A difference of anatomy only. And anatomy has done nothing to alleviate the loneliness. And—I care about you. I love you."
"I love you too, Napoleon." Embarrassment forgotten, Illya met his eyes squarely. "I've always loved you."
"Do you think—do you think you could feel that way—that physical way—about me?"
Illya looked at Napoleon's hand, covering his. "Are you saying that you do?"
"I'm saying that I wonder if I could. I don't know. I have no experience to base any kind of judgment on. But I thought—I thought maybe we could try it."
"To see—what? If you like it?"
"If I can, first. It makes so much sense. You and me—we're perfect together with everything else. What if we'd be perfect in bed together too and I've never seen it because I'm too used to thinking inside the box? The gender box? But—I mean—maybe I won't be able to, ah, rise to the occasion. Since it's an occasion I've never thought about before. And maybe I won't want to, when it comes right down to it."
"I don't understand. I thought you just said you want to."
"I want to—here." Napoleon touched his temple.
"But you don't want to here." Illya made a rather vulgar gesture and now it was Napoleon's turn to flush.
"That's what I don't know."
"And you want to find out. An experiment, of sorts."
"If you choose to put it that way."
"I don't know, Napoleon." Illya pulled his hand free. "All this experimenting and finding out if you can rise to the occasion—if you're aroused or repulsed—it certainly sounds like a less than enchanting experience for me." His voice was dry and Napoleon flushed further.
"Put like that I suppose you're right. But give me some credit, Illya. I could have gone about this the standard way—taken you out for dinner, plied you with wine, fed you extravagant compliments—taken you home and romanced you right out of your clothes and into my bed."
"Yes, you could have." Illya felt wistful. How nice that would be, to be on the receiving end of one of Napoleon's high powered seductions. Napoleon was watching him.
"It would have worked, wouldn't it."
"I have too much respect for you to do that. Because then if it turned out I couldn't—or didn't want to—wouldn't it have been worse? Isn't it better for you to know going in?"
"I suppose." Illya's mouth drooped, and Napoleon took his hand again.
"I didn't mean to make you sad. I just thought maybe it would be wonderful. How will we ever know unless we try?"
"And if you can't—or don't want to—what then?"
"We wipe the mutual embarrassment off our faces and go on with our friendship from there. At least we'll never wonder what if. What if—Illya, those have to be two of the sorriest words in the English language."
"We'll still be friends?" Illya looked anxiously into Napoleon's face. "Because I'm not sure I want to risk that, no matter how wonderful it might be. I'd rather have friendship and empty pleasure than no friendship at all."
"Would you want to be my friend? If I couldn't, or decided I didn't want to, or we did—and then it wasn't going to be repeated? Would you hold it against me? It wouldn't have anything to do with you as a person, or with the way I feel about you. It would say more about me, I suspect, and my hidebound habits."
"I suppose so—I mean you wouldn't say cruel things to me, would you? Or be repulsed by me and not want to see me anymore?"
"No." Napoleon was holding both hands now. "Illya—I love you. I will always love you." He turned Illya's hands up, kissed one palm. Illya shivered.
"Because I feel I'm going into this from a position of weakness. You know I want to." Napoleon kissed the other palm, and Illya swallowed. "Want to now."
"Do you," Napoleon said, and smiled. He didn't actually say that this was more like it, but Illya could see the satisfaction in his eyes. "Well, if it helps, I can tell you now that I don't want to let go of your hands, that you taste very sweet—that I'd like to kiss your wrist next." He did, and Illya closed his eyes. "How your heart is racing," Napoleon whispered. "Does my touch do that to you?"
"Yes." It was no use pretending otherwise. He held out his vulnerability to Napoleon, eyes openly asking him to be kind.
Napoleon kissed his other wrist, promising kindness, and more. "Now that it's out in the open, would you like the full treatment? I can pick you up Friday night and take you out for dinner and dancing..." he stopped and Illya laughed out loud. After a moment Napoleon laughed too. "All right, not dancing. But dinner..." he tightened his hold, "and then drinks at my apartment?"
"Can't we dance there?" At the look on Napoleon's face Illya smiled at him gently. "If you can't even dance with me, Napoleon, there isn't much hope for the rest of it."
"I suppose that's true. Yes. Dancing and cocktails and slow, hot kisses."
"Now your heart is racing," Illya whispered. He could feel it in each of Napoleon's fingers where they gripped him. "Do I do that to you?"
"You—and terror..." both laughed again. "It's the intensity that's frightening, Illya, not anything to do with you. I know how to keep it casual. I may not be very good at real passion. I may not be very good at this at all."
"That's all right, Napoleon." Illya's throat tightened. It was disarming, to see Napoleon unsure of himself. "I'm very good."
"Is that a yes?"
"Yes. But you're right, Napoleon. I want it all. I want the dinner and the dancing and the cocktails—and the slow, hot kisses. I want it all."
"I could kiss you now."
"You could. And that would tell you something, wouldn't it?"
"I suppose it would." He leaned across the table and Illya half rose to meet him. Their mouths brushed, lightly, and then not so lightly. A discrete knock at the door brought Napoleon to his feet, and Illya sat back down. He touched his mouth. Napoleon had kissed him. And Napoleon certainly didn't seem repulsed. He had finished paying the bill and was smiling down at Illya now. Illya smiled back.
"Well, Napoleon? What's the verdict? Do you want to or no?"
"I'll pick you up at home Friday at seven thirty."
"Should I bring a change of clothes, or will you pack me into a taxi like you do them?"
"I would never treat you that way, Illya." Napoleon leaned both hands on the table, smile gone. "Even if it's a total disaster, we'll still be friends. Best friends. I promise."
"So I can at least count on sleeping in Aunt Martha's bed?" He thought of the big guest room where he usually spent the night, and smiled at Napoleon, who laughed.
"Yes. You can at the very least count on sleeping in Aunt Martha's bed. And I'll cook breakfast in the morning."
"Deal." Illya extended his hand and Napoleon shook it. Then they smiled into each other's eyes again, and went back to work.
Illya left early on Friday to get ready. On his way to the elevator he encountered Jess. "Hey," Jess said happily. "This is fortuitous! I was heading for your office."
Illya leaned against the wall and smiled up at him. "Hi. What did you want?"
"To see if you were up for dinner and bowling tonight."
"I'd love to, but I have plans."
Illya blushed. "Napoleon."
"Solo? What about the to do list? This isn't on it."
"I know. This is..." he wished he could stop blushing because Jess was bound to... "different."
"No way," Jess said slowly. "You mean he's finally opened his eyes to the possibilities?"
"Don't tease me, Jess, please. He just wants to see if—well, if it would work out, between us."
"Like an experiment."
Although it was the same word Illya had used he tried to scowl now. "Don't call it that. And don't say anything else."
Jess was silent, looking into Illya's face. "Can I wish you all the best?" he asked finally, reaching out to straighten Illya's tie. Illya smiled, relieved.
"Yes you can. Thank you. I'll see you Monday."
"I'll be around this weekend, if you need me for—well, if you need me."
"You're a good friend, Jess. Thank you. 'Bye." Illya went off down the hall, bouncing a little with each step.
Jess watched him go, filled with mixed emotions. He wanted Illya to be happy—of course he did. But he didn't want to lose Illya, either, and he did not have the sense that Napoleon Solo would be a man of generous disposition if things did indeed work out between those two. Well, he would know soon enough. He began running through his address book in his mind, deciding who he would spend the night with, since his first choice was unavailable.
Once again Illya stood in front of his mirror, making a last minute check. It was seven twenty-five, and he knew Napoleon would be right on time. He wore the same light grey suit, but with a sky blue turtleneck this time, one Napoleon had bought him, saying, in an off hand way, that it had made him think of Illya's eyes. It had pleased Illya then, and now he was pleased again because it did match his eyes precisely. He had washed his hair and let it dry uncombed because that always brought out curls and waves that he knew were extraordinarily becoming. He didn't tie his ponytail quite so tightly this time and, indeed, a few stray wisps had already escaped. Napoleon's knock at his door made him start, and turn from the mirror. He caught up his coat, wrapped it around himself and answered the door.
Napoleon was in full evening wear, and the sight of him made Illya's breath catch in his throat. How handsome Napoleon was. Illya had always thought so, and now he let his eyes sat it for him with a quick, admiring upward glance, then a shy withdrawal behind his lashes. He didn't plan to flirt with Napoleon, not precisely, but there was no harm in letting his own interest be known, was there? Besides, Napoleon had always found admiration combined with beauty to be a heady brew, and Illya knew he was beautiful tonight.
Napoleon smiled at his partner. Why was Illya being shy with him? He followed Illya down the stairs, letting himself appreciate the grace in his every move, noticing—and approving—the wild mass hanging down his back, the blue hair band that he knew meant Illya was wearing the shirt Napoleon had given him. "What's with your hair?" he said, as they reached the front door. He touched it lightly. How soft it was, and surprisingly cool.
"I didn't comb it out well enough, I suppose," Illya answered, getting into the cab Napoleon had out front. "You look very nice."
"Thank you. So do you."
"Thank you." They fell silent, then, and neither said a word until they were seated at their table. Napoleon had reserved another private room, even more secluded and luxurious than the last one. The full treatment, he had said, and he intended to deliver.
"Do you still like blackberry brandy?"
"Good." Napoleon poured them each a glass and, relieved at the chance to do something with their hands, both drank. Wanting to put Illya at ease—but how charming his downcast eyes, his evident nervousness were—Napoleon asked him about work and was rewarded by Illya gradually warming, opening up, and by the dessert course both were laughing and talking as if this were any dinner. Of course the brandy helped—Illya had far more than his share and Napoleon didn't discourage him, not at all—but it was really impossible for the two of them to be ill at ease with one another for long. More of Illya's hair had come out of the band to lie along his cheekbones, tickling him, making him brush it back while he talked and Napoleon wanted to do it for him, more, wanted to pull the band out altogether and put his hands in it—how would it feel? Soft, he already knew, and cool—thick, and... Napoleon called for the check.
They rode home in silence. Illya was really nervous now, no dissembling was required. Napoleon had carried out his promise with his usual aplomb—paying obviously heartfelt compliments, smiling into Illya's eyes, at one point laying his hand on Illya's where it rested on the table, removing it with evident reluctance when the waiter returned. Just that brief contact had set Illya's heart racing again, a fact not lost on Napoleon because he'd deliberately laid his forefinger on Illya's pulse, then smiled again and Illya had smiled back.
Back at his apartment Napoleon took Illya's coat and hung it up. Illya walked over to the fireplace and stood still, waiting for he knew not what. Napoleon came up behind him. "If I remember the agenda correctly," he said right into Illya's ear, enjoying it when Illya jumped a little, "we are up to the cocktails, dancing and kisses. Would you like me to fix you a drink?"
"I don't think I should mix anything else with the brandy."
"As it so happens," Napoleon said, and produced another bottle of the same. Illya smiled.
"You certainly do come prepared." He accepted a glass, and Napoleon lifted his own in a toast.
"To friendship," he said softly, and Illya touched Napoleon's glass with his.
"To friendship," he agreed, and both drank. Then Napoleon walked over to the stereo, pressed a button and soft music filled the air. When he returned to Illya, however, and began to reach for him, for the first time he faltered.
"I'm not sure... how will this work?" He laughed nervously. "If anyone had ever told me that one day I'd be slow dancing with another man I'd have said he was crazy—and maybe broken his jaw." Illya moved nearer until their bodies were almost touching.
"It's all right, Napoleon," he said, and laid his head on Napoleon's shoulder, tucking it into the crook of his neck. "You can lead. You're taller anyway, so it makes sense."
Napoleon cleared his throat. "All right, well, let's see." He put his arm around Illya's back, pulling him even closer and Illya put one arm around Napoleon's neck, let Napoleon take his free hand, cup it in his own. The fit was perfect and after the first awkward moment Napoleon relaxed. They danced for nearly an hour. Illya's head was spinning agreeably from the brandy, and just being in Napoleon's arms was wonderful, was everything he'd ever dreamed of and judging from his arousal Napoleon was enjoying it too. The feel of Napoleon's hardness pressed against him was enormously reassuring—the first hurdle overcome, apparently. Napoleon could indeed rise to the occasion. Illya turned his face into Napoleon's neck, let his breath be warm there, shifting a little in the embrace to let his own arousal meet Napoleon's, feeling Napoleon hesitate. Then he drew back, looked into Illya's eyes.
"Well," he said finally. "I guess this is where it gets different."
"This," Illya whispered, "is where you kiss me."
That was different, because none of Napoleon's women tried to set the pace—they knew better. Napoleon wavered. But Illya had closed his eyes, waiting, and Illya certainly did have a lovely mouth—hadn't he always thought so? "You are very beautiful," Napoleon told him and Illya smiled, and then Napoleon kissed him.
There was a long, timeless interval where Napoleon couldn't hear the music, couldn't think, could barely breathe. Illya's lips were soft, and warm, and he did love Illya, who was as close to him as his own soul, and that Illya trusted him with his passion moved Napoleon deeply. He kissed Illya some more, not holding back when Illya's lips parted but going ahead and taking his mouth, feeling a totally unexpected surge of triumph when it yielded to him—Illya, so proud and fiercely independent, yielding to him. His arousal was painful now, and Illya didn't need to tell him the next step because there was only one thing to be done with both of them so ready.
If Illya had been a woman Napoleon would have picked him up and carried him into the bedroom, but he wasn't sure that was appropriate so he walked them both in, one arm around Illya's shoulders, using the other hand to turn off the lights, and close the door behind them. He turned away to draw down the bedcovers, feeling awkward again because this was it, the difference was going to become apparent now and could he really go through with it? When he looked at Illya again Illya was naked, having stripped his clothes off with all the efficiency Napoleon should have expected and oh, Illya was beautiful, his body slim, fair, and glowing with health and excitement. Napoleon forced himself to look at the obvious difference, an odd sensation because men didn't—shouldn't—look there. He had been naked with Illya any number of times, with both of them observing the polite conventions, but now he looked; not so different from his own organ which he certainly had always considered a handsome piece of equipment, except that Illya was fair there, too, and Illya's curls were the same gold as his hair. He became aware that Illya was waiting, that Illya was giving him time to back out if he wanted to, and he smiled, began to unknot his tie.
Relieved, Illya crossed over and did it for him, undressed Napoleon slowly, unbuttoning, unfastening, sliding his jacket and then his shirt off those broad shoulders, going down on his knees to unfasten Napoleon's pants, offering his posture as proof that Napoleon needn't worry, that Napoleon could be in charge, that Illya wasn't going to push him or challenge him or try in any way to take the dominant role. Napoleon allowed himself to be stripped, and when it was done he drew Illya up to stand in front of him. He pulled off Illya's hair band, and ran both hands through those curls which were so wild and so unlike Illya's usual restraint. They embraced again, bodies hard against the other. Illya locked his arms around Napoleon's neck and let Napoleon stroke him, touch him; let Napoleon discover the other, more subtle differences, the hard muscles under Illya's skin, Illya's hips as narrow as his waist, no soft swelling anywhere, just hardness and tightness. Napoleon's hands skimmed across his back, up his sides, striking sparks everywhere they passed, making Illya arch up against him, making Illya gasp, and press his lips to Napoleon's chest, to his throat, to the sensitive place just behind his ear.
He felt Napoleon hesitate again, clearly not sure how to make the transition from standing to lying down, from the bedroom floor to the bed itself, so Illya did it for him, stretched out on his back, again signaling that Napoleon could be on top, that Napoleon could run the whole show. When Napoleon came down, pinning Illya deep into the mattress Illya felt none of the old fears, no, Napoleon's weight was the sweetest thing in the world. Napoleon's hands were so skillful—he had to give Napoleon credit. Napoleon was by far the best lover he'd ever had, knowing without words what would make Illya twist and shudder, how to make Illya open his legs without seeming to press, how to make Illya cry out, and cry out again. He wanted to share his pleasure, to give Napoleon everything he had to give so he touched Napoleon in his turn, touched Napoleon in all the secret places he'd always wanted to explore, doubting very much that anyone Napoleon had been with knew more about giving pleasure than Illya did, and then Napoleon stiffened.
It had been going fine. Illya was deliciously responsive, and how sweet it was, giving pleasure where there was also love, watching Illya's face, watching Illya react to every touch of his hands, helpless under his skill, head turning restlessly on the pillow, that wonderful hair shifting, tickling Napoleon's face and his shoulders. Illya's skin was so soft, incredibly soft and this was Illya, his partner, his friend, his most beloved and trusted friend. Illya moaned, reached for Napoleon in his turn. Touched him. The surroundings fell away, leaving him adrift in a sea of sensual delights, Illya's eyes drawing him in, his own body responding without his volition to Illya's touch and he was losing control, losing himself. He gripped Illya's hands, more tightly than he knew. "Stop that," he rasped, squeezing harder, feeling the jolting return to reality, falling back into his own body. "Stop." He released Illya's hands and began touching him again, needing to show himself in charge, to conquer, to win—he was moving urgently now, and his hands were everywhere, feeling Illya's response with another savage flare of triumph.
Stunned, Illya let him. He looked into Napoleon's face, bewildered and hurt by the harshness in his voice and his grip. Napoleon had closed his eyes, squeezed them tightly shut as if—as if he didn't want to see who he was with, any more than he'd wanted to feel Illya's hands on him. The sorrow was too much to bear and Illya turned his face away, closed his own eyes. His body went on responding to Napoleon's touch, and when Napoleon nudged his thighs further apart Illya wrapped his legs around Napoleon's waist willingly enough because the pleasure was so strong, but even as Napoleon took him, even as he cried out under Napoleon's thrusts, even as Napoleon convulsed at the end and Illya clutched at him, through all that Napoleon's eyes stayed closed and Illya's heart broke again, and again.
Finished, Napoleon rolled away and Illya felt lost without his weight, felt rootless and too light, as if he might float off the bed. He turned his head and looked at Napoleon, lying on his back, arm across his face, panting. Illya waited, wondering what either of them could possibly find to say to the other now, and after several moments Napoleon's breathing slowed, evened out and Illya realized he was asleep. He himself was nowhere near sleep despite the shattering orgasm he'd just experienced. 'Stop that' Napoleon had said, as if Illya's touch were loathsome to him, as if the only way he could carry this through was to ignore Illya completely, to touch his body but not his—his personhood. Was Napoleon pretending he was with a woman? Was Illya's touch too familiar, did it bring the reality of the situation too closely home?
Illya lay there and felt—empty. He had never felt so empty. And after a while he remembered Napoleon saying it was better to be empty alone, and he agreed. As carefully as he could he slid out of bed. He took his clothes into the bathroom, washed up, dressed, tied his hair back. With what hopes he had set out on this adventure. And now his hopes were crushed—as he was crushed. He no longer wanted to sleep in Aunt Martha's bed, to eat whatever breakfast Napoleon had planned. He wanted to get out of there, sparing them both the embarrassment of the morning. Spare Napoleon's having to tell him—whatever he would want to say. Spare himself the pain of hearing it. Illya touched the alarm pad, turning it off for just long enough to allow him to slip out, waiting in the hall until he heard the soft beep signaling it had rearmed.
Out front he shook his head at the doorman's offer of a cab and set off walking downtown. As he walked he wondered where he could go. He wanted to go to someone—someone who would hold him and comfort him—wanted to hide from the emptiness at least for the rest of the night. George—it would be good to see George, to sleep in George's living room on the foldout sofa, to feel George tousle his hair with that rough affection that had no sexual content, but it was—he checked his watch—three thirty in the morning. George would be asleep. He'd be sleeping with his wife because Mae and George had been married for thirty-five years and George would know nothing of Illya's emptiness.
Jess? Jess would receive him—even straight from another man's bed, Jess would be good to him, but Jess might not be alone either. He probably wasn't. He'd no doubt found another date when Illya had turned him down and while Jess was a good enough friend that he'd tell Illya it didn't matter, it wouldn't be fair. There was no one.
Illya saw a taxi with its light on, and hailed it. No one. There was no one who would have a place for him in their heart tonight. He was alone. Unutterably alone, now, without Napoleon. Illya stared out the taxi window, unseeing. Had he lost Napoleon? Could they put their friendship back together now? Oh, they could continue with the form, could keep on meeting for lunch, or dinner—but could they ever recapture the intimacy? Could he ever trust Napoleon again, with Napoleon's sharp voice still echoing in his ears—he looked at his wrists, dark red now and going to be black and blue tomorrow. What had he done that was so wrong, that Napoleon had felt he needed to treat him so? Nothing. Napoleon had only wanted to use his body, for Illya to be pliant and acquiescent but not to return caresses, not to be an equal partner. He was no more than the subject of Napoleon's experiment, and from Napoleon's point of view, no doubt, the experiment had been a success. Napoleon had risen to the occasion, had carried it through to the end, had undeniably given pleasure. And when it was over Napoleon had turned away and sunk into separate slumber.
Illya paid the cabdriver and climbed the stairs to his apartment. Inside he stripped, and showered. He washed his hair again and when he came out he combed it straight, wrapped himself in his bathrobe. Bundling up the clothes he'd worn that night he carried them out and stuffed them into the incinerator chute. How could he wear them again? Napoleon had promised kindness, at least, and instead... maybe he would take some time off, just himself and his emptiness. He sat at his kitchen table, stirring coffee and staring into its black depths.
Dawn was streaking the sky when a pounding at his door made Illya start out of the doze he'd fallen into. He looked through his peephole at Napoleon's face, and opened the door. Napoleon strode in, kicked the door shut behind him and confronted Illya, hands on hips, face set. "What the hell?" he demanded.
"Why are you here, instead of in my bed? I turned over, I reached for you and you were gone! Not even in the spare room, but gone! So I'll repeat my question—what the hell is going on?"
"I just thought it would be better this way."
"How better? You'll stay the night with every Tom Dick or Harry but not with me?"
Illya flushed. "I thought it would be easier this way. I thought I'd save you having to look me in the face in the morning and tell me you didn't like it."
That visibly softened him. "What do you mean, you thought I didn't like it? Of course I liked it. Couldn't you tell? I would have repeated it when I woke up if you'd still been there."
Illya sighed. "All right. I wanted to save you having to hear me say I didn't like it."
That struck Napoleon like a blow and, predictably, he struck back. "What a fucking little liar you are," he said, cold now. "You liked it. Don't tell me. I know you liked it. I'll have to change my sheets, that's how much you liked it."
Illya recoiled a step, then his chin went up. "You promised not to say cruel things to me, however it turned out," he accused. "So who was lying?"
"Look... I'm sorry, Illya. I didn't mean—I'm sorry."
"No. I want you to leave. Go home and—and change your sheets. We tried—we failed. At least you'll never have to wonder what if."
"But why didn't you like it? I thought—I thought we were together on that."
"You kept your eyes shut so you wouldn't have to see my face. You told me not to touch you as if my hands were dirty—as if they made you dirty. It was empty. Not just after, but during. It's never been so empty. And it was worse because I expected something different. We weren't together. You were you and you left me behind, left me all alone out there. And now you come here and you say things..." to his disgust Illya heard his voice break and he turned his back. "Get out."
Napoleon reached out, touched Illya's shoulder. "Illya..."
"No." Illya pulled away. "Get out."
"Fine." Rebuffed, he straightened. "Just—fine." He walked out, slamming the door and Illya went to it, fastened the chain, and leaned against it, listening to Napoleon's retreating footsteps.
Saturday afternoon Illya called Jess. Jess's open pleasure at the sound of his voice made him feel better. "Illya! What's up?"
"Can I come over?"
"Thank you. I'll be there as soon as I can."
When Jess opened the door he took one look at Illya's face; pale, bruised looking circles under his eyes, and put an arm around his shoulders. Carefully, he led Illya to the sofa, sat down beside him. "What is it, Illya? Was it that bad with Solo?"
"I can't talk about it. Suffice it to say the experiment won't be repeated."
"I'm sorry, sugar. Really." He squeezed Illya and Illya turned towards him, put his head on Jess's chest. "He didn't hurt you, did he?" He took Illya's hand, looked at the bruises on his wrists. "Is that his handiwork?"
"He didn't mean to. He didn't know he was doing it. I can't talk about it, Jess, I told you. I just need to be with someone who loves me right now. All right?"
"Sure. That's fine." Jess held him and after a little while Illya fell asleep. And it was in that moment, comforting Illya for the loss of another man, that Jess knew how much he cared. 'Someone who loves me' Illya had said, and Illya was right. He loved Illya, but knew also that he'd never be able to give Illya everything he needed. Whatever had befallen Illya in his early years had left him far more needy than Jess had the resources to fill. Jess had always known how needy Illya was, despite Illya's flippant air. But Solo—Solo could fill that need. Solo was hard driving and intent, and already far more possessive of Illya than mere friendship should indicate. Whatever had happened between them Friday night didn't change that, any more than it changed Illya's own fixation on Solo. Jess sighed. He could move in right now, could give Illya the love and sympathy and support he craved, could bind Illya to him with gratitude and affection—but it wouldn't be enough. It would never be enough. So he held Illya and, later, when he woke up, Jess fed him left over spaghetti and garlic bread and took him to bed where they held each other all night long, and Jess didn't try to initiate anything more because he knew Illya wouldn't welcome it.
Monday morning Jess made an appointment through Solo's secretary and walked in at precisely ten AM. Solo didn't look as if he'd slept too well himself. He didn't look especially pleased to see his visitor, either. "Mr. Coleman. What can I do for you?"
"Illya doesn't know I'm here. And he hasn't said a word about whatever happened Friday night. But he doesn't have to tell me it went badly."
"None of this is any of your business."
"He came to me Saturday after you broke his heart. That makes it my business."
"Nonsense. I didn't—"
"Illya is in love with you."
"Do you have any idea how lucky you are? And you throw it away like it was nothing."
"If you would let me—"
"I've never seen him as happy as he was when he left here to get ready for you Friday after work. And you crushed him."
"Stop interrupting me!" Napoleon snapped.
"Fine." Jess waited. "Well? What do you want to say?"
"Nothing, to you. Leave my office."
"You're a fool. Illya is—Illya is a treasure. A rare, beautiful, fragile treasure. And he offered all that to you, and you—you're a damn fool. That's all I came in here to say." Jess stomped out, then turned back. "And we didn't sleep together this weekend, in case you're interested. He didn't want me after you. If that matters." He strongly suspected that it did, or he wouldn't have said it at all, and the way those cold brown eyes narrowed confirmed it. He couldn't imagine what Illya saw in the man, and he spent the rest of the day nervously hoping Solo wouldn't make Illya pay for Jess's rashness, hoping that Illya wouldn't find out about Jess's visit at all, and that if he did, that he wouldn't hate Jess too much.
Napoleon sat at his desk for a long time after Coleman left, thinking it through. 'Illya is in love with you' Coleman had said and was that really such a surprise? It resonated like a long known truth. Illya was in love with him. And he had treated Illya abominably. He, who would never dream of using an obscenity to any one of his casual lovers had thrown one in Illya's face, deliberately chosen because he knew how Illya disliked it. Instead of going to Illya and admitting that it had hurt him, to wake up and find him gone, that the empty apartment had devastated him, that he hadn't intended to drive Illya away, that he wanted him back, in his bed, in his arms; that he was in love himself, and didn't know how to cope—instead of just being honest he had gone on the attack and—what had Coleman said? Crushed him. How had it gone so wrong? Somehow he had to make amends. The full treatment, he had promised Illya. Well, generally the full treatment included flowers and a note sent the day after. He went on line, clicked on his favorite florist. He would indeed send flowers and a note—would write the truth he should have spoken, and give Illya time to consider, whether he wanted to accept Napoleon's apology or not. Napoleon had sprung enough surprises on his partner over the past several days. This time he would give Illya an opportunity to develop a script of his own. He looked at the ring he always wore on his right hand—his grandfather's ring, set with a blue star sapphire, and hoped fervently that the script would lead to the only conclusion he could bear. It took Napoleon a long time, to choose his offering—rare, beautiful, and fragile, as Coleman had said, but when he did he was pleased. He hoped Illya was too.
Illya closed his book at the tap on his door. Reluctantly—he wanted to see no one, and certainly to be subjected to no more scenes—he looked through his peephole and frowned at the unfamiliar face under the delivery cap. "Yes?"
"Who wants to know?"
"The birds have flown south for the winter" the young man said and Illya blinked at the code—one of the cold codes, dating from his years in the field. Who—Napoleon, of course. Slowly, Illya unfastened the chain, slid back the bolt and opened the door. "Illya Kuryakin?"
"Sign here, please." Illya did so, and then, as he reached into his pocket the young man shook his head. "The tip has already been taken care of, sir." He was intrigued. His particular shop was accustomed to Napoleon Solo's expensive orders—although this one topped them all—and even to the occasional use of some sort of catch phrase, but this was certainly the first time the recipient had been a male. He smiled ingratiatingly at Illya. "If you could tell Mr. Solo you were pleased with the service, that's more than enough."
"All right." Illya accepted the tissue wrapped package and brought it inside, locked up again and set it on his table. Carefully, he untied the tissue and let it fall open, revealing Napoleon's gift.
An orchid, in varying shades of blue; dozens of fragile little blossoms suspended on curved green stems. A delicate fragrance came from each flower and Illya leaned over it, inhaled deeply. Carefully he touched one of the nodding blooms with the back of his finger—so soft it could barely be felt at all. The plant was potted in an exquisite porcelain vase, glazed a deep blue that matched the darkest shade in the flowers. A tiny envelope was propped against the main stem, and Illya opened it.
My partner and my own true love. You were mistaken, in your interpretation of my actions, although the fault is mine. If you will listen to me explain, come to me. I will wait for as along as it takes.
Illya sat, turning the card over and over in his hands, looking from it to the orchid, then back to the words—my own true love, Napoleon had said. And—you were mistaken, in your interpretation—well, what other interpretation was there? He could still hear Napoleon's voice, cold and abrupt; could still see Napoleon's eyes, tightly closed. Did he really owe Napoleon a chance to explain? And the only answer to that was yes. Not because of the gift, or the words, sweet as they were, but because of all the years before. I'll wait for as long as it takes, Napoleon had said. Did that mean he was waiting now? If Illya took him at his word, and got into a taxi right now and went to Napoleon's apartment, would he be waiting? Well, there was only one way to find out. Illya put on his coat, took one last look at the orchid, enigmatic and beautiful on his table, and went out the door.
"Thank you for coming," Napoleon said, and stepped aside, allowing Illya to enter. "Please sit down."
"Please hear me out."
"All right." Illya took the seat indicated and was shocked into speechlessness when Napoleon went down on his knees in front of him.
"I never meant to hurt you. I never meant to imply that your touch was unpleasant to me in any way. Please believe me. I never..." he reached out, took Illya's hands in his own, looked with disbelief at the bruises there. "Did I do that?"
"I am so sorry." He kissed the marks. "I had no idea."
"I know. I never thought you did. But it showed me how much you didn't want me to touch you."
"When you touched me—it was the sweetest thing I've ever known." He kissed Illya's wrists again. "It was bliss. It was ecstasy. It was..." uncharacteristically lost for words he laid his cheek against Illya's open hand... "wonderful."
"It scared the living daylights out of me."
"I don't understand."
"For those few moments I was lost. I didn't know where you ended, and I began. I was helpless in the face of what I felt. I wasn't in control. I wasn't in charge. And it terrified me. I never meant to hurt you. But I can see how I did. And I am so sorry, Illya."
"Why did you keep your eyes shut? As if you didn't want to see me. As if you were pretending I was someone else."
"I was drowning in your eyes." He turned his head, kissed Illya's fingers. "I was dizzy with it. I had to shut it out or—I don't know what. I don't know what I was afraid of. But now I find I'm far more afraid of losing you. I was wrong, to think we could try this out and then just go on with our friendship as if it never happened."
Illya swallowed. "No—don't say that. I'll be your friend. Friendship and empty pleasure—it was fine before."
"Only because I didn't know any better. Of course we can do that, if that is what you want—whatever you want, Illya, I will do. But I would much rather try again."
"Again?" Illya's hands trembled and Napoleon closed them up more tightly in his own warm ones.
"I know what a leap of faith that would be. I have no right to ask it. In fact—" he looked at the bruises again. "I have far less right than I'd imagined. I promise, Illya, I will never again handle you with anything less than the most exquisite care. I love you. I offer you everything I have to give—even my own need to be in charge all the time. Show me how to lose myself, Illya. Let me fall into your eyes and never come up. Teach me how to let go of my control. Trust me again. Please." He opened his hands, leaving Illya's free on his palms. "Please."
Illya slid off the chair, on his own knees now. "Yes," he said, and laid his head on Napoleon's shoulder. "I love you too, Napoleon. And I trust you." Napoleon rose, helped Illya to his feet and then he did pick Illya up because it was what he wanted to do and who cared what was appropriate—everything was appropriate between two people who loved each other the way he and Illya did—and carried him into the bedroom. He undressed Illya this time, and stripped himself and there was no thought of difference because he and Illya were together and that meant everything was different. And when Illya touched him Napoleon didn't tell him to stop, and he learned he wasn't lost at all, because Illya was with him, and they found each other in the maelstrom of passion. At the end their eyes met and held and it wasn't drowning, it was flying, flying and soaring and sinking back down again, together, and this time Napoleon didn't turn away. This timer he gathered Illya close and they fell asleep with Illya's head on Napoleon's shoulder, and Napoleon's arm under Illya's neck, and their free arms each draped around the other, and when they woke up they did it all over again.