Napoleon Solo stood at the entrance to the crowded banquet hall and waited for the woman beside him to finish fussing with her hair and make-up. Her name was Katrina and she was very beautiful, and very wealthy. It was a triumph, to have her on his arm at this prestigious occasion.
Napoleon knew all that, and as they entered he saw the admiring and envious looks that came his way—came discretely, because Napoleon Solo was a man to be feared as well as admired. He had run the London Section with an iron hand and an implacable will since his two year assignment here, beginning eleven months ago now. Even Napoleon was aware that his suave veneer had worn thin over the past year, the affable mask slipping more and more to reveal the bedrock beneath.
This conference had offered a break from all that. Awards were being given, speakers were presenting, and Napoleon had been put up at the hosting hotel in a suite on the top level with a connecting door opening into the adjoining suite where he had installed Katrina. He was nearing the pinnacle of his power, and he knew it—knew it and increasingly didn't care. It had lost its once all consuming interest for him.
Napoleon went to work, worked ferociously for ten to twelve hours a day, then went to the gym for two to three hours. Several nights a week he wined and dined various women, took them back to his apartment and was able to lose himself for a brief time before putting whoever she was in a taxi and working at his desk for a while longer before going to bed. It was not at all the life he had envisaged for himself; although it was, it was in every detail. But Napoleon had expected that he would enjoy it. And he didn't. Hadn't, in fact, enjoyed anything for a long time.
He plowed through each day, grimly, then slept for just enough hours to fuel him to plow through the next day, and the next... Napoleon didn't know what was wrong with him. He wished... he didn't know what for. All he knew was that he was relatively young, still, forty-five years old tomorrow, and the prospect of twenty to thirty more years of the same round made his achievements turn to ashes in his mouth. He was lonely, and already bored with the evening, bored before they were seated at the table. Then, as he was holding the chair out for Katrina, Napoleon caught a glimpse of a familiar profile across the room and straightened, staring.
It couldn't be—but it was, it was unmistakably Illya Kuryakin, his former field partner and still the best friend he had in the world. Illya was standing with a drink in his hand, long blond hair in its usual ponytail and hanging down his back, almost to his waist. Illya was wearing the midnight blue tuxedo Napoleon had given him for Christmas last year, and he was talking to another man whom Napoleon recognized as one of the promoters of this event. What was Illya doing here? Napoleon had gone over the list of presenters and award winners as a matter of routine, and he certainly would have noticed Illya's name. But how wonderful it was to see his friend.
At that moment Illya turned his head, and saw Napoleon. His face brightened and he mouthed the word 'surprise' before the man with him shifted position, putting himself in Napoleon's line of vision. "Excuse me," he said to Katrina and walked across the room. Illya looked over his companion's shoulder, saw Napoleon coming and smiled at him. "Excuse me," Napoleon said again, to the man with Illya this time, then took Illya's arm and moved him away. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "I didn't see your name on the list."
"I'm a last minute substitute for Grant Woods," Illya explained. "He got sick so I offered to come. Actually," he laughed a little, "it took some serious lobbying because everyone wanted to go, but with it being your birthday and all" he smiled again "I called in some favors."
"It's the best gift I could have had," Napoleon said honestly. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you."
Illya blushed, pleased both by Napoleon's words and by the expression on his face which clearly said that yes he was glad, surprised and glad. "Well, good. I'm glad too, then."
The lights dimmed, and people began moving towards their tables. Napoleon caught Illya's arm again. "Come with me." At his table Napoleon smiled apologetically at Katrina. "Katrina, this is Illya Kuryakin. He works with me in New York and he's here on urgent business. I know you won't mind changing seats with him. Illya—show Miss Winters where you were sitting. Then come right back."
"Yes sir. Come with me, please," he said to Katrina, very correct, very smooth, and inside he was jumping up and down with joy that Napoleon was so clearly happy to see him, that they were to dine together—it had been so long, since Napoleon had left. Illya missed him, and had snatched at this opportunity shamelessly, using his considerable leverage to beat out the other candidates.
As he escorted Katrina, pouting a little, to her new table, introduced her, and hurried back his heart was racing. He looked to Napoleon, thrilling again when Napoleon patted the chair next to him. Illya seated himself and they smiled into each other's eyes. "Well, Napoleon. You look—fit." He did. But there were new lines bracketing Napoleon's nose and mouth that Illya had never noticed before, and rather grim lines around his mouth, too. He looked stern, and Illya thought that if he didn't know better he would be intimidated by his partner, but he did know better, and the way Napoleon's eyes warmed now as they rested on him confirmed it.
"And you look" Napoleon looked him over sharply. "Too thin. And too pale. Have you been sick?"
"No. It's been a long winter, that's all. I'll get some sun soon."
Napoleon reached out and closed his hand around Illya's wrist, thumb meeting fingers too easily. "You've lost weight. Is everything all right?"
"Yes," Illya said, because it was, now. "Everything is fine."
"How long are you here for? And where are you staying?" Napoleon became aware that he was still holding Illya's wrist and released him.
"Just the weekend." The place where Napoleon had touched him felt cold, now, without Napoleon's strong fingers there, and Illya put his hands in his lap. "Our plane leaves Monday morning. And I'm staying here. On the ninth floor."
"My suite adjoins another. Let me move you into that one. It'll be just like old times."
"Hopefully not just like," Illya murmured. "I don't remember that we ever got to enjoy the rooms we used to share."
"Too busy being shot at,"
"not to mention the odd tarantula"
"poison gas through the vents,"
"Well, not this time, I'm sure. The most dangerous thing we're likely to encounter is lack of hot water. So you'll do it?"
"Won't she mind?"
"Ask me if I care," Napoleon said and got up to talk to Katrina, to tell her she was moving, to make arrangements so she could stay free of charge in a charming little suite by the pool. Illya watched him, frowning. That last remark had not sounded like Napoleon at all. He was always so courtly, and gallant with his women. Now he dismissed this one in under two minutes and came back smiling as if nothing had happened. "All settled," he announced. "Get your things. We might as well do it now."
"They haven't even started serving dinner."
"You want to sit through this thing?"
"Well—I have to, Napoleon. I'm saying something later."
"Why—oh, I see." Napoleon had scanned the agenda and seen Wood's name on the list of after dinner speakers. "Then I suppose we have to. Tell me what's new in New York."
They talked shop through the soup course, and the dinner, were silent over dessert and then the speeches began. Illya kept his short—apologizing gracefully for the absence of Grant Wood, introducing himself and explaining what the focus of his workshop the next day would be. He concluded with a thank you and a smile, and sat back down next to Napoleon.
"And your workshop is—when?"
"Ten o'clock Saturday morning—tomorrow morning."
"Well, Grant Wood is supposed to attend the rest of the conference. But I'm off at six o'clock. And all day Sunday."
"I'll show you around, if you like."
"I would like that. Thank you." Illya blushed again under Napoleon's smile, and toyed with his coffee spoon. "What's wrong, Napoleon?" he asked finally.
"What makes you ask that?"
"You don't look happy. I thought this job was everything you've ever wanted."
"Then what's wrong?"
"I don't know." He didn't. "But I don't want to waste this time together talking about it. All right?"
"Yes, Napoleon," Illya said in the agreeable way that always made Napoleon laugh, and he did this time too, laughing out loud and drawing the surprised looks of several people who knew him from work.
"It's so wonderful you being here, Illya."
"Thank you. What do you want to do for your birthday tomorrow?"
"Nothing." His voice was short. "I was going to do my very best to forget it."
"Oh. But I wanted to do something for you. You're always so good to me when it's my turn."
"Not this past one. I was here." It had made Napoleon bitter, that he hadn't been there for Illya's birthday because Illya was right, Napoleon always did something special. Illya had confided in him once that no one had cared to, when he was growing up; that it had always been just another day and ever since then Napoleon had tried to make up for all those missed celebrations but not this year because he had thought he wanted this job with its power and influence. Illya touched his arm. Napoleon shivered unexpectedly, feeling an impulse to cover Illya's hand with his own, to prolong the moment, but of course he didn't, and Illya withdrew. "What?"
"I knew you weren't listening to me. I said what do you mean, not this one? You sent me that wonderful comforter. I love it. It's so light, and soft, and warm—it makes me think of you every time I fall asleep."
"You do?" Napoleon was delighted. "You think of me? You like it?"
"Yes. And you had dinner sent to my apartment—I was really surprised. In fact," Illya leaned closer, "I was so surprised that if you hadn't given them the secret password—'When spring is in the air and the clouds are in the sky' the delivery boy had recited from the card accompanying the steaming platters—and Illya, remembering now, laughed and Napoleon laughed too—"I wouldn't have let him in."
"Well, good. I'm glad it all worked out and you enjoyed it."
"I wrote you, Napoleon." Illya looked at him oddly. "I did write and tell you it came and I liked it. Didn't you get my card?"
"I got it." The little piece of pasteboard with Illya's delicate script on it, the formal phrases of gratitude, had made Napoleon so wretchedly homesick he hadn't been able to look at it, although it was safely tucked away behind the desk blotter in his office. "Thank you."
"Well. Thank you. So you don't want to do anything special tomorrow? We don't have to. I can give you your present in your room."
"You brought me another present?" He tweaked Illya's nose and Illya laughed. "Besides yourself?"
"Yes. But you have to wait until tomorrow."
"All right." They beamed at each other and then Napoleon put down his napkin. "Well? Have we stayed long enough?"
"Yes, Napoleon." Illya got up and poked Napoleon, who was chuckling. "Stop it."
"You know that always makes me laugh." It did. Illya sounded so sweetly compliant, but Napoleon knew full well that underneath was a will as obdurate as Napoleon's own. It never failed to delight, and he tugged at Illya's ponytail.
"I do know." Illya did, and how he loved to hear Napoleon's laugh, to see Napoleon's smile, and Napoleon's hand on his hair, brief as the contact was, made Illya catch his breath.
They left the room together and, stopping first at Illya's room so he could collect his belongings, went upstairs to their new shared quarters. They sat on the sofa and talked about work for some time. Illya had three projects in varying stages of completion on his plate, and he told Napoleon about them. Napoleon listened, and watched Illya's face, and after a while Illya fell silent. He looked down, a little nervous because Napoleon had already made his feelings plain, and took a deep breath. "Napoleon? I wish you'd talk to me. What's wrong?"
"I told you. We have so little time together. I don't want to waste any of it talking about... about nothing."
"But you're thinking about it, I can see. And it's not nothing if it makes you look like that. Maybe I can help."
"High stakes career advice? Hardly your field."
"No. I know." They were silent again.
"I hate it." Napoleon's voice was abrupt, harsh. "I hate it all. And it's everything I've ever wanted. So what does that mean? What have the years been for, if once I reach this place—I could keep this job, Illya. Easily. Mr. Dodson is just incompetent enough in just enough key areas that if I wanted to make the push, I could have this job. Within ten years I could be one of the three major players. It's right in front of me. I don't even have to reach out and take it. It's in my grasp right now. All I have to do is close my hand..." he did, and they both regarded Napoleon's clenched fist, resting on his knee. "Isn't that what I've always wanted?"
"Yes." Back in the days when they shared hotel rooms and other accommodations routinely they had often sat up and talked like this. Napoleon had opened his plans to Illya, and Illya had listened to his partner talk and had no doubt whatsoever that Napoleon would do everything he said he would do. "It's what you always said."
"But it's nothing, Illya. It's day after day of work and night after night of emptiness. I'm only forty-five, Illya. I have the rest of my life ahead of me. And for what? Work and emptiness?"
I thought you loved your work."
"I remember—I remember feeling that way. But it's gone. I do my job, I do it well—people respect me here..."
"They're afraid of you here. It reminds me of when I was first assigned to you, the way everyone said oh, Napoleon Solo, look out, he'll eat you alive. It's the same thing, that man saying oh you want to meet with Mr. Solo? Does he know you're coming? Do you have an appointment?" Illya laughed. "I decided I'd just see you when I saw you."
"Who was this?"
"I'm not telling you because now he'd be in trouble. What about Katrina? Is she someone you're seeing?"
"I don't see anyone. I fuck them."
"Oh." Again that jarring note.
"My plan was to keep this job. You know that. I had no intention of giving it up when it was over. But now—I don't know what to do. I don't know myself anymore. How can I plan ahead when my feelings are so irrational? Why do I not want what I've worked for all my life? What's wrong with me? I take no pleasure in anything. I used to enjoy work, I used to enjoy dating—now the one's as dreary as the other. Tell me, Illya." Napoleon looked into his partner's eyes. "You know me so well—better than I know myself perhaps. What is wrong with me? And what should I do now, now that it's all there for the taking and I don't want it. And how would it look, if I did hand it all back meekly next year like a good little team player and went back to being just another department head?"
Illya thought, his eyes never leaving Napoleon's face. In all the years they had been together he had never heard Napoleon sound so uncertain. Napoleon had always known exactly where he was going and what he would do when he got there. How could Illya presume to advise him now? He never had comprehended Napoleon's thirst for power. Illya loved his job, but assiduously avoided office politics. He was not especially good at them, and wanted nothing but to be left alone to work. And he could indulge his feelings, he knew, because he had Napoleon. Napoleon, whose influence was enormous, never hesitated to sign off on everything Illya proposed, guaranteeing that Illya got the projects he wanted, the funding he needed. It was Napoleon who had recommended Illya for promotion to his current position, which gave Illya the autonomy he needed to set his own schedule and work at his own pace. No one protested, because Illya's continuing successes reflected favorably on Napoleon's selection and both their careers flourished. Illya became aware that Napoleon was still waiting, and groped for words that would help. He couldn't bear the look in Napoleon's eyes. "If you did come back to New York," he said finally, and had to stop. Just the words made him so happy... "stepping down for the benefit of the organization—you could carry that off. Plus you'd seem less predictable. They'd wonder what you were really up to. Meanwhile you could wait for the next opportunity. It might be more congenial to you."
"What could be more congenial to me than being made a Section Head at forty-five?"
"I don't know, Napoleon. You're the one who said you hated it."
"Team player. There is no team, Illya. That's just the pap they feed us when we're in the trenches. At the center it's all hypocrisy and power seeking and bloody, ambitious men."
Illya reached out and touched Napoleon's arm. "I'm sorry." He moved a little closer, hoping that his presence might bring some ease. Often it did.
"It's all right. It's just the way things are." Napoleon wished he dared put his arm around Illya's shoulders. Illya was sitting very close, and there was no one to see... would it be so wrong, if he did? Would Illya pull away, visibly affronted, as was his way when faced with unwanted physical contact? Not from me, though, he's never pulled away from me, of course I've never...
"Not necessarily," Illya was saying. "Mr. Waverly wasn't like that."
"Alexander Waverly was the last of a dying breed."
"Not as long as we... you're wrong, Napoleon. There is a team—in the trenches or wherever—if the center is rotten, that still doesn't take away from what goes on every day all over the world. It doesn't take away from what you and I have. We're a team."
"That we are. The best they ever had."
"So you think I should step down gracefully when the time comes?"
"I think you shouldn't stay in a job that makes you look like that."
"Hard—and a little inhuman—if I didn't know you, I'd be afraid of you myself. But my advice may be skewed, Napoleon. I think it's only fair to warn you."
"I miss you."
"Yes. And I don't want you to make a major career decision based on just that. That's why I'm telling you."
Napoleon did put his arm around Illya's shoulders then, and Illya didn't pull away, he sat very still. "I'll keep your bias in mind," Napoleon said, smiling. "Should I lighten up on them, do you think?"
"Not necessarily." Illya shook his head and the stray hairs that had escaped the ponytail tickled Napoleon's neck. "Because your instincts are always accurate. What was it you sensed in the beginning, that made you feel you needed such a... such a strong approach?"
"A general feeling that since I was only here for two years I was rather a lame duck and people were already angling for advantage." Napoleon was surprised by how easily that came out—he hadn't voiced it, even to himself, but Illya always had had the uncanny knack of eliciting the truth from him.
"Then no." Illya looked indignant. "Don't lighten up. Serves them right for underestimating you. They should have done their homework better. Start easing off about six weeks before you're ready to leave, at the same time you begin to shift your affairs back to New York. That will reassure everyone on that score, too. What? Why are you laughing?"
"You certainly have it all figured out."
"Well. I warned you I was biased."
"So you'd like to see me back in New York?"
"Yes." Illya put his head down on Napoleon's shoulder and Napoleon's arm tightened. "I would. But only if it's what you want."
"It appears that it is." It did. The prospect made him feel lighter, suddenly. They sat quietly for a long time, each thinking his own thoughts. The scent of Illya's hair was in Napoleon's nostrils, and he smiled at the sweet familiarity of it. "Have I told you I miss you too?"
"Painfully." Napoleon did. He tried very hard not to think about it—it seemed—inappropriate, somehow, but he did miss Illya—missed him every minute of every day.
"I don't want to say good, Napoleon, because that sounds terrible, but I am glad—I'm glad I'm not missing you all by myself."
"You're not." He squeezed Illya, then, daring, and Illya snuggled a little closer, equally daring. They sat for a while longer. Illya had been swallowing his yawns because he didn't want this time to end—it was so precious, and so sweet, and so rare, but Napoleon's arm around him was warm, and strong. Illya's body, unmindful of such things as International Date Lines, persisted in thinking it was seven in the morning on a day when he hadn't slept the night before, and it was grateful for this soft, safe place. The next time Napoleon looked at him Illya was asleep.
Napoleon sat like that for a long time, not wanting to move, not wanting to let Illya go. He turned his head again and looked down into that serene face, already not seeming so pale, a touch of color in Illya's cheeks, and Illya's lips. Missing me, Napoleon thought, seeing the truth for the first time. Missing me—losing weight, losing color—missing me. Just as I—I am losing my humanity, missing you. He contemplated that lovely mouth.
For the first time, he wondered what it would be like to kiss that mouth. His partner always seemed so cool and passionless—would he be? Or would Illya's mouth be as warm and yielding as... as Illya's body was, now, turned trustingly into his embrace. Napoleon wanted to hold Illya like this all night long, but that was impossible. They had tomorrow, and tomorrow night, and Sunday too, all day, and Sunday night—Napoleon counted the hours and felt like a miser with his hoard, reluctant to give up even one of them to separate slumber, but it was unavoidable. Very carefully he put his lips to Illya's ear and whispered his name, the softest breath of a sound he could manage. "Illya."
Illya's eyes opened, and he gazed with sleepy pleasure into Napoleon's face, so close to his. "Napoleon." For a long moment they just looked into each other's eyes then Napoleon backed off and Illya stood, stretching and yawning. It was so endearing that only with the greatest effort did Napoleon keep from reaching for him once more. "Goodnight, Napoleon. I'm sorry about Katrina."
"No need," he answered, and walked Illya to the connecting door.
"Still" Illya yawned again. "You thought you were getting lucky tonight."
"I did," Napoleon said, suddenly very serious. He put both hands on Illya's shoulders and looked earnestly into his eyes. "I got very lucky."
"Oh." Illya blushed. "Well. Thank you."
"Thank you for coming."
Illya looked at his watch. "Happy birthday, Napoleon."
"Already?" He looked at his own watch. "Thank you. Sleep well, Illya. I'm very glad you're here."
"So am I. You sleep well too. See you tomorrow." Illya turned and walked away, and the last thing Napoleon saw was Illya pulling the band off his hair and shaking it free before the door closed between them and he was alone. But not lonely.
He reflected on that, later, after he had showered and gotten into bed. Illya was so close that if he raised his voice Illya would hear and come. And they had all weekend. Napoleon's eyes closed then, and for the first time in a long time he was smiling in his sleep.
Monday afternoon Napoleon was at his desk when his secretary buzzed him. "Mr. Solo?"
"Darla Jordan from Imaging to see you, sir."
"Tell her to come in." He raised his eyebrows at her as she entered. "Well?"
"If this is a liberty then I'm sorry, I'm sure. But I'm scanning the security disks from the banquet the other night—you know, the camera freeze frames on a random track—"
"I am aware of our security procedures."
"Well, I was there too and I saw... well, I thought—I just thought you might like to have this one." She handed him a folder. "And again, if I'm out of line I'm sorry."
"Thank you, Miss Jordan." He didn't say dismissed but it was in his voice and she rose, nodded once, jerkily, and left. Napoleon opened the folder and slid the 8 by 10 sheet of glossy paper out.
UNCLE's security cameras were excellent. The picture was as clear as any studio portrait. Napoleon, and Illya, at the dinner table. Illya was talking, smiling a little, face alight, and he himself was laughing. Napoleon stared at it, fascinated. The image sent back to him now in his mirror, in passing glances in windows, and sent back, too, from the eyes of those around him, was polished granite. But the man in this picture looked warm, and open and... happy. He looked happy. And Illya—Napoleon looked at him again—looked happy too. Not to mention very lovely, with his cheeks slightly flushed, blue eyes sparkling, the lights catching and shining in that blond hair.
Napoleon looked for a long time, then he activated his computer screen. He sent a simple thank you to Darla, then went into the security file himself, and deleted the image that told so much. The last thing he did before he hit the key was print out one extra copy. He sent it to Illya, by the mail, on his way home that night; one private person to another, no security codes or seals—just one innocuous brown manila envelope among millions. He enclosed no note because he didn't know what to say—didn't know what to think, really. But he enjoyed looking at the picture, and thought Illya might too.
Napoleon took his own copy home, put it in a frame, and hung it where he would see it every day. He wondered what Illya would do with his. Maybe Illya would call. Napoleon had considered calling himself, although he had made the last move, with his manila envelope. Then he realized that he was debating whether he should call another man first, decided that was clearly ridiculous, and did his best to push the whole thing out of his mind.
Illya sent another card. Holding it, Napoleon couldn't decide whether to be sorry Illya hadn't called, because he really had wanted to hear his partner's voice again, or glad because this was something he could keep—behind my blotter with the other one, he thought, and sat down. He had just come through his front door, having been glancing through the mail. He had recognized Illya's careful, somehow old fashioned handwriting even before seeing the postmark, and opened it at once. He found the same card as before; Illya must have a box of them.
Napoleon: I don't know what to say, besides thank you. Thank you. Illya
That was all. No date, nothing except the brief message. Illya didn't know what to think, about the picture itself or the fact that Napoleon had sent it to him, so he didn't know what to say, either, in the polite note his private schools had taught him to write. And since Illya always told Napoleon the truth, he had said just that, added his thanks, put the card in an envelope and thrown the ball squarely back into Napoleon's court.
What ball? What did he even mean by that image? Napoleon shook his head. And then, as if of their own volition, his feet drew him over to the wall where he had hung the photo. He stared at himself again. At that moment, in that place, he had been happy. The proof was right there before him. He was laughing out loud. He remembered laughing out loud several times during that evening. And the reason for that happiness was sitting right next to him, his own face glowing with pleasure at their being together.
Napoleon walked away, went into the kitchen, started dinner. The motions were so familiar it made it easy to go on thinking. All right, what was the surprise? He was happier when Illya was there than when he was not. Was that so strange? Illya was his friend, his best friend—more, his trusted friend. Those years out in the field had cemented them in a way impossible to describe. They were—together. Neither one would ever act against the other, and both knew it. Each would be there for the other no matter the circumstances, and both knew that too. It was a thing so rare in their world that Napoleon didn't think he'd seen its equal in all his years and all his acquaintance.
Without realizing it, he had come back to the picture again, and stared at it some more. There were other people in the photo, on either side and behind at the long table, but the two in the foreground were oblivious. Napoleon remembered that, too. As far as he was concerned, there were no other voices in the room, no other faces. He had been completely taken up with Illya, and Illya with him. It's just that it's been a long time, he thought. A long time, without seeing each other. But the whole weekend had been the same. It had flown by, and Napoleon didn't remember a single other person in it except the people he saw when their schedules diverged.
He remembered sitting in on Illya's workshop that Saturday, not understanding half of what Illya was saying but enthralled nevertheless by the play of emotion across his face, because Illya cared visibly and passionately about his work and Napoleon loved that about him, loved—everything about Illya—his courage and his integrity and his cool reserve, his formidable intelligence and his sly sense of humor, loved Illya's laugh, and his smile and what was this, what was this?
The timer went off, and Napoleon took his dinner out of the oven, stirred it, sprinkled cheese on top and slid it back in. All right. He loved Illya. That wasn't so hard to admit. He wasn't too conventional in his thinking for that. He loved his friend. And—he was pretty sure—Illya loved him, too. It was in Illya's eyes, and in his voice, in his face right here in the picture Napoleon was somehow standing in front of again. They loved each other. That wasn't hard to understand. Neither had any family, to speak of—Napoleon an only child, parents now deceased and prior to that, absent. He had been raised by staff, and, later, schools. Illya, also an only child, also with both parents dead, had had the profound misfortune to be raised by an uncle who, in Napoleon's opinion, was a dangerous sexual psychopath who should never have been allowed anywhere near children. He had routinely savaged the little boy in his care until Illya, at sixteen, had secretly applied for and received a full scholarship in England, as far away from Russia as he could manage.
There had been a terrible scene when this was revealed, and for the first time Illya had defied his tormentor. "I'll tell," he had said, back against the door, one hand to his flaming cheek, the other across his stomach where his uncle's fists had answered his request to leave. He'd had to ask because his uncle had to sign the papers. Illya was still underage, and the school wouldn't take him without the consent of his guardian. He had considered forging the signature, but what if he were found out? He'd be sent back—no. Better to resolve it once and for all. "I'll tell them why you won't let me go. I'll tell everyone what you do to me. I don't care what they say about me, or what you do. I'd rather be dead than live like this. I'll tell, and then if it's really bad I'll kill myself." It had been a desperate gamble, and for a moment Illya had thought his uncle was going to kill him right there on the spot, but his uncle was a prominent man with a lot to lose, and a strong instinct for self preservation. He had signed the papers and Illya had left with the clothes on his back and the money he'd stolen from his uncle's office safe stuffed in his shoes. His throat was ringed with purple and black indentations in the shape of his uncle's fingers, and his precious documents were clutched in his hands. Illya had never looked back. If he saw his uncle again, he would kill him. He knew how, now.
Illya had told Napoleon all this, in bits and pieces throughout their association, and Napoleon had listened and wanted to applaud. He had wondered then, and later, how it was that Illya presented such a flawless view to the world, when those scars had to run so deep. Raised without even the pretense of affection Illya's emotional frigidity was more than a match for Napoleon's own profound indifference. People had snickered when they were put together—Napoleon, with his urbane charm overlaying his impermeable reserve, and Illya with his ice encrusted courtesy. But they had bonded—inexplicably and, seemingly, at once.
Waverly had known, Napoleon thought—he had known exactly what would happen. He had needed a strong team, and had gotten what he needed. But now—the job was over. There was no need, any more, for the type of—of passionate devotion called for in those perilous days. No need now, to guard one another at all times, to be ever vigilant. It was even unseemly, in this more normal time, to feel the same way as before. There was no justification, really, to feel this way about another man.
Napoleon looked at the picture again, and wondered what Miss Jordan had thought of it. He looked away, tried to clear his mind, and looked back, looking as if these were two people he'd never met and what would he think? I'd think we were damn newlyweds, he answered himself and stood there, thinking about that, and about the wayward thought he'd had, that first night, watching Illya sleep on his shoulder—and how Illya's body had fit against his, as if it were made to be there—wondering what it would be like to kiss him. He wondered now. Would it be so different? Would it feel—wrong? He knew Illya so well, on so many levels, knew how Illya moved, how he thought—had carried Illya out of danger, had tended Illya when he was sick, or injured—been carried and tended in his turn. Now he wondered how Illya would respond to what he had been thinking.
Illya had never, to Napoleon's knowledge, taken a lover, of either gender. The disassociation he had learned as a child to remove himself from the intolerable things his uncle did to him was so complete that his sexual feelings had never surfaced. At least that was what he had confided then, back at the beginning. Now—Napoleon wondered. Sometimes when Napoleon touched him Illya shivered. Sometimes he blushed. He never moved away. Napoleon rather thought that Illya would follow his lead in this, as Illya did in everything else; that Illya's trust in him went deep enough to overcome everything else. I could teach you pleasure, Napoleon thought. I would—oh, I would be so good to you, if you'd let me. A wave of emotion surged over him then, a great swelling of hunger, and love, loneliness and yearning—it took his breath away and he couldn't move or think until it passed. Then Napoleon caught his breath in the aftermath, looked again at the two happy people in the picture, and picked up the phone.
FIVE DAYS LATER
Illya was mopping the floor. The floor wasn't particularly dirty, but it was Saturday so he was cleaning. Pausing to wipe his forehead—it was a steamy July day and his air conditioner was being repaired—Illya looked at the picture of Napoleon and himself, hanging right in the passage to the front door where he saw it just before he left, and first thing when he came home. What a happy time that had been. How he missed Napoleon. The news that Napoleon was being offered—and was planning to accept—an overseas position had hit Illya like a blow. And that Napoleon wanted to go, was eager to go, had hurt him so badly that even now he couldn't think of it without pain.
Napoleon had not only wanted to go, he had been laying his plan to make it a permanent position—as permanent as any position was in Napoleon's upward climb. Illya had thought, in that first desperate grief, of moving to London himself—but how would that look? As if he couldn't bear to live without his partner, and while that was the truth it was hardly something he wanted to broadcast—especially when that partner had no such qualms. So he hid his unhappiness as best he could, and his success broke his heart afresh because generally he couldn't fool Napoleon, not for one minute, but Napoleon wasn't paying attention because Napoleon was fixed on what lay ahead.
When Napoleon stopped by Illya's office to say good-bye, Illya had been nearly blind with pain. He had tried to cover it up, but Napoleon must have seen something because he had enveloped Illya in an embrace just before he walked away. "Hey," he whispered, sounding surprised. "I'm going to miss you. Take care of yourself. Let me know if you need anything."
"All right. You too. And I'll miss you too."
"I'll call you," Napoleon said, but he hadn't, and Illya really hadn't expected him to, but it hurt him nonetheless.
He had hoped Napoleon would call him on his birthday, but the day had passed and Napoleon hadn't. When he got home that night, however, there was a large box blocking his doorway which, when opened, proved to contain another box, gift wrapped in pale grey with silver trim. Illya had had to smile through the tears blurring his vision because it was just like Napoleon to have it wrapped, thinking of all those lost birthdays; and so like him, too, in its understated elegance. There had been a card, a photo of the ocean on the front because Napoleon knew Illya loved the sea, and inside the words "Happy birthday across the miles". Napoleon had added nothing to the message except his own careful signature. Inside the box was a white, hand sewn, goose down comforter and while Illya was still lifting it, and laying his cheek against it in wonder and pleasure, the doorbell had rung. It was a seven course gourmet feast, and when the delivery boy had read Napoleon's 'secret' message Illya had laughed and then, when the delivery boy had left, surprised and gratified by the size of his tip, he cried a little too, but since he never told anyone, no one ever knew.
Now Illya looked at the picture of Napoleon laughing, and touched the glass wistfully with one finger. He hadn't known what to say to Napoleon about it because he didn't know why Napoleon had sent it. It seemed to reveal so much about his friend, who was normally so reticent. Illya had gone into the files to delete the image, and not been surprised that Napoleon had been ahead of him. He was relieved.
It was bad enough that people gossiped about him and Napoleon, as he had heard that they did. Illya had been in love with Napoleon since their first mission; succumbing to Napoleon's charm without a struggle, and as time went on his feelings only strengthened. He thought Napoleon was quite simply the best man he had ever known. Napoleon's word and his integrity were rock solid, his courage near foolhardiness, his mind sharp and wide ranging. He had planned out their tasks for that first assignment and Illya had watched and listened, lost in admiration for Napoleon's farsightedness and adaptability. Increasingly, both found that they thought the same way, felt the same way, about virtually everything that was important to them.
To Illya's shy delight Napoleon began seeking him out, on and off duty, making no secret of his preference. Napoleon cared mightily about his partner, and didn't mind letting it show. He cared whether Illya were injured, or tired, cold or in pain, hungry or sick. And Illya, who had never had anyone care in the least about any of those things, gave Napoleon every bit of devotion his love starved heart had to offer. That Napoleon made his own feelings so plain warmed Illya all over. He'd never known how cold he was, inside, until Napoleon warmed him. And if he wished for more—if he lay naked on the comforter Napoleon had sent him with his body aching for a touch he'd never known—that mattered to no one except himself.
Someone knocked at his door. Startled, Illya set the mop against the wall, blew his sweat damp bangs off his forehead, and went to look out the peephole. Napoleon was standing there. Illya gasped, yanked on the door. It was locked. He shook the knob impatiently and twisted the bolt, pulled on the door again. It jerked open and slammed against the chain. He said something rude in Russian, and heard Napoleon's chuckle. Shutting the door carefully Illya removed the chain, and this time it was pushed open from the outside and he fell into Napoleon's arms.
If Illya had stopped to think he would never have done it. He would have politely stepped aside and let Napoleon come in but he didn't think and the next thing he knew he was clutching Napoleon around the waist, and Napoleon's arms were wrapped around him. They stood there clinging to each other, while Napoleon kicked the door shut behind him. That accomplished, Napoleon closed his eyes and just held on.
It felt wonderful, to hold Illya against him, to wrap that thin body up in a close embrace and just hold him. This was why he had been so unhappy in London. Nothing to do with the job, after all. He was unhappy because without Illya he was alone. And now, with Illya safely in his arms, he wasn't. Illya's head was on Napoleon's shoulder, as if it was he who had come home. They stood like that for a long time.
Napoleon tried to assure himself that it was a hug, and that was fine, that was perfectly natural when two friends hadn't seen each other, he had hugged Illya good-bye after all, and this wasn't any different but after a while it became obvious that it was different. He wasn't hugging Illya in that awkward way men had, he was holding Illya, holding his partner in his arms, and Illya was holding him, too, arms tight around Napoleon's waist. Furthermore Illya had his head tucked into the crook of Napoleon's shoulder and that was fine, it was just fine, because now he could smell Illya's hair, and the nape of his neck—Napoleon inhaled and held on tighter.
Illya felt as if he were drunk—drunk on Napoleon's smell, and the feel of Napoleon's body, and the strength of his arms. It was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and he didn't wonder what Napoleon was doing here, or why... he just pressed even closer. "Illya." Napoleon's whisper, right in his ear, made him shiver unexpectedly, Napoleon's hot breath reverberating through his body.
"What?" he whispered back and felt Napoleon shiver in his turn as Illya's lips brushed his neck.
"I can't help noticing that this is an extraordinarily long hug."
"Yes." Napoleon was making no move to end it, so Illya slid his fingers through Napoleon's belt loops so he could hold on better.
Feeling it, Napoleon had to smile against Illya's hair. He could see the picture, framed and hanging on Illya's wall. "That's just what I did with mine," he whispered, right in Illya's ear again, wondering if he could recapture that shiver and, when he did, kissing the top of Illya's head.
"You did?" Napoleon had kissed him, and it made Illya so dizzy that if Napoleon let go now he was sure he would fall to his knees. He blushed at the image, and pushed his face into Napoleon's neck, rubbing his cheek against the rough fabric of his jacket.
"It was nice of you to send it to me."
"It was nice of you to send me a thank you card."
"It was even nicer of you to come see me. What are you doing here, Napoleon?"
"Evidently—this." He squeezed Illya, and Illya squeezed back. "Illya—I have given this so much thought."
"Yes. And this." He kissed Illya's head again, and Illya swallowed.
"Oh. And what have you decided?"
"I don't know. I don't know about any of it. All I know is I'm miserable without you, only truly happy when we're together, and happiest of all right this minute."
Illya tipped his head back so he could look up into Napoleon's face. "I'm happy now too."
"You are very beautiful," Napoleon told him.
"Oh. Thank you. You're..." he couldn't find a word. Beautiful wasn't right, handsome hardly seemed to cover it—"wonderful." It was completely inadequate, and he blushed again, his eyes telling Napoleon what his words could not. Napoleon smiled at him.
If I kissed you now, he thought, I'd know. I'd know everything I need to know. I'd know if it felt wrong—or if it didn't. I'd know how you felt... Illya's eyes had widened.
"Are you going to kiss me?" he asked in surprise. Napoleon jerked a little, surprised too.
"Why would you ask me that?"
"That look." Illya lowered his eyelashes, then lifted them again, giving Napoleon a devastating smile. This was not the first time Illya's unconscious flirtatiousness had made Napoleon's breath catch in his throat. It was only the first time he had admitted it. "I never thought to see it first hand, but I know it."
"Well—and what if I did kiss you? Would you be offended with me?"
"No—are you thinking of it? Really?"
"I can't help wondering," Napoleon whispered, "if you can possibly taste as good as you look, or smell."
"I smell good?"
I'm sweaty and dirty from cleaning."
"Yum," Napoleon said and Illya laughed.
"Well, I can't help wondering too. I mean, I've seen the effects of your kisses, Napoleon. All those women—they betray Thrush, they betray their families, they risk their lives to let you out of prison cells—I've always wondered."
"Have you now."
"You certainly kept that a deep, dark secret from me."
"Well, really, Napoleon. It hardly seemed appropriate."
"None of my feelings for you are appropriate, Illya. I'm coming to terms with that."
"Mine for you have never been appropriate."
"Hmm. So you wouldn't object if I kissed you?"
"You may be disappointed," Illya said, looking nervous. "I may not be a very good kisser."
"I find that hard to imagine." Napoleon kissed the tip of Illya's nose. "Since you have such an exceptionally beautiful mouth."
"Oh." Illya blushed crimson. "What nice things you say. Do you—should I close my eyes?"
"Entirely up to you." Napoleon leaned in closer and Illya did close his eyes, and then Napoleon's mouth covered his.
It didn't feel wrong, Napoleon was thinking as Illya's head fell back and he leaned in closer, not wrong at all, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. He kissed Illya and it seemed his heart was open and all the love he'd kept secret in there was pouring out, through his mouth and his hands—he unfastened Illya's band and ran both hands through that silky blond hair. Illya arched up against him, raising his arms to slide them around Napoleon's neck, and Napoleon traced the outlines of Illya's lips with his tongue, and Illya's lips parted. He faltered, then, and Napoleon coaxed his tongue into his own mouth, sucked on it, hearing Illya's moan with a sudden, fierce triumph. I knew you'd respond to me, he thought, sending his tongue exploring now and Illya, always a quick study, sucking on it in his turn.
Napoleon ended the kiss, then, so he could bend down, slide an arm under Illya's knees and scoop him up, carrying him over to the wall where the Murphy bed was hidden. He tried to work it with one hand, couldn't, swore. Illya began to laugh and Napoleon set him down, laughing too. "Hold that thought," he instructed and began to pull on the handle. Illya helped him, and the single bed slid down and out.
The new comforter, primly encased in a white duvet lay welcoming them. Napoleon very slowly removed all Illya's clothes, item by item, while Illya stood and breathed deeply and then he undressed Napoleon, hands shaking so hard he could barely undo the buttons and Napoleon had to help him. Then they fell onto the cloud like spread. Napoleon, who had thought he'd be teaching Illya about pleasure found he had things to learn himself; that Illya's touch set him on fire, that Illya's mouth could make him cry out, and cry out again. Then Illya cried out, and they sank back down, closely entwined on the narrow bed. They fell asleep like that, with Illya's head on Napoleon's shoulder, and Napoleon's lips pressed to Illya's hair, and their hands clasped.
The first thing Illya knew when he awoke was how wonderful he felt. He felt safe, and happy—and his body felt different—peaceful, as if the restlessness which had been with him his whole adult life had been stilled during the night. Napoleon's arms were around him, his hand was tucked inside Napoleon's palm; Napoleon's lips were warm against his temple, and he could feel Napoleon's breath there. He could hear Napoleon's heart, right under him, thudding away.
How it had raced last night as they clutched at each other towards the end. How it had pounded after the end, then slowing, slowing—that sound following him down into sleep.
He lay now within the circle of Napoleon's arms, not daring to move for fear of waking him, and wondered what would happen next. When Napoleon did open his eyes, what would he think? What would he [C1] say? How long—how long would he remain there, in Illya's bed, before glancing at his watch and giving some reason for his departure? Illya had seen it over and over again. It was remarkable that Napoleon had stayed the night, considering.
"Why did she leave so fast?" Illya had asked Napoleon once, arriving to meet Napoleon for a late dinner and seeing Elena on her way out the door. "Didn't you just meet her this afternoon?"
"The length of my attention span after is in direct proportion to how easy they were before," Napoleon had said, and Illya had laughed. Now, lying there, he wondered what exactly he had found so funny. He had been easy.
He flushed now, thinking of it. Napoleon hadn't even had to ask him. He had thrown himself at Napoleon shamelessly. Even now, he couldn't be sorry. How sweet it had been, Napoleon's hands and Napoleon's mouth—he blushed again, remembering his own voice crying out, and Napoleon's mouth coming down on his, silencing him; remembering how he had touched Napoleon—kissed Napoleon—everywhere. Where had he found the courage to kiss Napoleon—there? How had he dared? But Napoleon hadn't minded—he had groaned aloud and tangled his hands in Illya's hair, holding his head—there.
Illya blushed some more, tongue coming out to touch his lips. No wonder people spent so much time in the pursuit of this pleasure. But surely it wasn't always like this. He himself couldn't imagine being this intimate with anyone but Napoleon. His uncle's face, red and distorted with passion, rose in his mind and he scowled. Go away, he thought impatiently. Go away. Obligingly it did, and a smothered laugh brought his attention to Napoleon, who was awake and looking amused.
"What are you frowning so ferociously about?" Napoleon asked. He had been lying there, watching Illya's face. "Not—what we did?"
"No—oh, no. I was thinking about—about him. Just for a minute," he added quickly.
"Just now? Not during?"
"No. Not during. And not now. Just for a minute."
"Well," Napoleon said, propping himself up on one elbow, smiling down at Illya, remembering last night, remembering how much Illya had liked it, how responsive he was. "You liked this," he said aloud, and repeated a caress that had been enthusiastically received the night before. Illya shivered, pressed himself against Napoleon as the caress continued, and deepened. He buried his face in Napoleon's shoulder and held on to him while Napoleon touched him, and kissed his cheek, his ear, along his jaw; Illya turning his face up so their lips could meet, kissing, kissing and touching and holding on, both holding on.
"Illya," Napoleon gasped, feeling that same torrent of emotion, wanting to say it with his words as well as his body, to get it out in the open between them. "I love you, Illya, my partner and my sweetheart, I love you with everything that is in me."
"I love you too, Napoleon," Illya said, and clung tighter. "I've always loved you." Then they kissed again, and the world disappeared from around them both, leaving only the other, and the other was everything.
When Illya woke again he was alone. Hesitant, hoping he was wrong, he reached out but no, the bed was empty except for him. He turned over on his stomach, buried his face in the pillow. It was only what he had expected, wasn't it. He had been easy, so Napoleon thought lightly of him, and left.
The toilet flushed in his bathroom, then water ran, and his heart lifted. Napoleon hadn't left without saying good-bye, at least—there he was in the bathroom still getting ready. The door opened a minute later and Napoleon emerged, nude, face glowing from cold water and after shave, hair tousled. "Next," he said, and Illya obediently rolled out of bed and stood up. Napoleon, seemingly unconcerned with his nakedness, jerked a thumb towards the bathroom and Illya, feeling self conscious, ducked his head so his hair swung forward and hid his face and went into the bathroom himself.
While he was brushing his teeth he heard his front door close and gasped, bending over the sink as if struck. He should have waited to use the bathroom, he could have at least talked to Napoleon while he got dressed, got some idea of when—or if—he would see Napoleon again. Now... he rinsed his mouth and came back out. Napoleon was in bed, under the comforter and reading the newspaper. Oh. Illya flushed with pleasure. Napoleon had gotten the paper from his front mat. That was why he had heard the door. It made him so happy.... he stood there, one hand resting on the wall, and smiled at Napoleon. Napoleon smiled too, and beckoned.
Illya came over and Napoleon patted the spot next to him, holding up the cover and, when Illya got into bed, pulling it over them both, tossing the paper aside, drawing Illya down, back into an embrace. Illya sighed with contentment and wriggled closer. Napoleon sighed too.
"You looked very beautiful, standing there smiling at me with your hair all around you," he said softly. "I'm going to enjoy getting used to this."
"Used to what?"
"Sleeping together and waking up together..." he pulled Illya harder against him. "This."
"I thought you left. When I heard the door. And before, when I woke up and you were gone."
"Did you?" Napoleon turned his head and looked hard at Illya. "You really expected me to leave?"
"Well—" Illya looked away. "I didn't think your attention span would be very long, considering..."
"Well, how easy I was. That's what you said it depends on."
"Easy?" Napoleon repeated. "Illya—last night was years in the making. This has been the longest, most protracted courtship of my life. Don't worry about my attention span. You'll be the one wondering what you're doing with a ninety year old man when you're a whippersnapper of seventy-five." He tweaked Illya's nose, as he had done at the dinner, but Illya didn't laugh this time. He only looked at Napoleon very seriously.
"But you weren't courting me all that time. You didn't even want me—this."
I've always wanted you. That first day it started. I wanted to take that worried look out of your eyes, show you I wasn't the monster everyone had been warning you about. I wanted you to trust me—to like me. I courted you into friendship first."
Illya had to smile at that. "Yes. So—you're staying? For—for how long?"
"I have to return to London tonight."
"Oh." Illya moved closer, in wordless refutation of their parting. How hard it would be. How—Napoleon's arms tightened in response.
"Come to London with me, Illya," he urged. "You can oversee our science division for a while. It needs it. And I—I need you. Please."
"Oversee the science division? In what capacity?"
"Consultant. It's nowhere near as efficient as New York's and I want to know why."
"Where would I stay?"
"With me, of course. What do you think? You'll come and live with me."
Live with Napoleon? How his heart leaped at the suggestion. But—he loved his life and his work in New York. And... his friends. He had dear friends, here. And while he could no doubt make a life for himself in London, how long would that last? Next year it could be—anywhere. And... what about Napoleon's women? That could get awkward. But Napoleon had asked him a question and was even now waiting for an answer.
"Yes," Illya said, because that was the only answer he had. "Yes, Napoleon," and his words were cut off when Napoleon kissed him, kissed him so long, and so thoroughly that when he rolled Illya over, onto his back, and nudged Illya's thighs apart with his knee Illya was still clinging to his mouth, and when Napoleon took him his cry was muffled there, and when they finished they still kissed.
When Napoleon finally released him, Illya caught his breath and put his mouth to Napoleon's ear. "Napoleon?"
"Mmm?" Napoleon nibbled at the nape of Illya's neck and Illya jumped, then bent his head so Napoleon could do it again.
"I would rather not leave New York for good."
"Well, London is only for the rest of this year. I thought we decided that."
"Then?" He looked into Illya's eyes. Illya had said yes to him, but now, in his quiet way, Illya was making his wishes known. Illya wanted a home. Deep down, Napoleon had always known that about his friend. Illya didn't want the sort of rootless existence Napoleon had pictured for himself, following the upward path of his career wherever it led. But Illya had said yes, first. Napoleon smiled at the thought, and at him, traced Illya's lips with his finger. "New York is the hub of it all," he said finally. "I can do just as well for myself in the long run by staying here." And how easy it was, to let it go... he kissed Illya's temple and Illya, relieved, put his arm across Napoleon's waist.
"I have a question."
"Ask away." He took Illya's hand.
"Well—I'm not saying I don't want you to do anything, because I want you to do what you want, but I don't really want to see it" or hear it, he thought, remembering last night, and bit his lip, again retreating behind his hair so Napoleon couldn't see his face. "I mean—how will that work?"
"How will what work?" Napoleon kissed Illya's palm, folded their fingers closed around the kiss, kissed the back of Illya's hand.
"If you—you know, when you have a..." he stumbled over the word.
"When I have a what?"
"Well, if you had a... a date. Or something."
"I must not be expressing myself very well. I love you. There will be no dates. I want to be faithful to you."
"Yes. Just as I expect you to be faithful to me."
"Of course I will." Illya brought their joined hands up, laid his cheek against them. "Of course I will."
"Well then." Napoleon kissed slowly along the delicate ridge of Illya's collarbone.
"I have another question."
"You do, do you."
"Just because I never... I was still curious—I mean, I didn't want to be ignorant."
"You know, you really do taste as sweet as you look—and smell. I had no idea."
"Um, thank you. In the books I read they said there was supposed to be a time between—I mean a time when you couldn't—I mean I—we couldn't."
"Is there." And why did Illya shiver so when Napoleon kissed the inside of his elbow? He repeated the gesture, lingered, then reached for Illya's other arm, Illya shivering even before Napoleon's mouth touched him.
"A—um, a refractory period. That's what it's called."
"And what was your question exactly?" When he put his lips to Illya's throat he could feel Illya's pulse beating there.
"Well—we don't seem to have one."
"No, we don't, do we. Do you know what that means?" He moved up so he was smiling directly into Illya's eyes, and they smiled back at him.
"True love." Napoleon fitted them together with care and oh, how perfect the match was. "It's a sign of true love."
"I'm glad you know." Illya trembled as Napoleon settled over him. "I'm glad you know—everything."
"Do you know how much I love you?"
"I—I think I'm beginning to." It was true. He knew Napoleon too well to be wrong, hard as it had been to believe it. "Yes."
"Then you know all you need to know." He buried his face in Illya's neck, lost in Illya's scent and Illya's taste and the feel of Illya's body and Illya's hair was soft against the skin of his arms where they were wrapped around Illya's back. They fell over the edge once again, together, ending up tangled up—together, on Illya's narrow bed.
"I can't—I probably can't—come with you tonight. It wouldn't be fair to everyone else."
"No, I know." He sighed. "When do you think you can come?"
"I'll try to wrap it up by Friday. Will that be all right?"
"I'll have a chartered jet waiting. No, better—I'll reserve you a seat on the Concorde. Come quickly, Illya. My days are empty without you and my nights are worse."
"I will. I'll be missing you too." They lay quietly. Napoleon was stroking Illya's hair, delighted by the feel of it, the way it clung to his fingers. "All this time," he said, and ran his other hand down Illya's side, and how had he never noticed how soft, and smooth Illya's skin was? "All this time we could have been together." Illya said something unintelligible, his face turned into Napoleon's shoulder. "Just think of all those stakeouts," Napoleon went on, putting both hands in Illya's hair now, wrapping it around his fingers, putting his lips there. "How quickly the time would have passed."
"Mmm." He liked the way Napoleon kept touching him. It was as though his body had been thirsty for Napoleon's touch all these years, and now was drinking its fill.
"But we couldn't have," Napoleon went on, and his eyes had darkened. "How could I have borne sending you into danger, if it was like that? How did we ever bear it?"
Illya shook his head. "I don't know. But we're together now. That's what matters."
"Yes." Napoleon thought of what he was asking Illya to do, asking him to leave his work, including the three projects he had talked about with such enthusiasm; asking him to leave—everything. "I will take good care of you, Illya," he whispered. "I promise. You have no idea how much I've always wanted to. I'm going to—to wrap you up in my money and my power and—and love you."
"And I will love you." Illya stroked Napoleon's face. "And if you want to stay in London, or move—wherever—I will go with you."
"I know you would. But we won't." They kissed again, and a week later, in London, Illya rode the penthouse elevator all the way up and when the door opened Napoleon was there, to take Illya in his arms again and kiss him home.