Forty (or Solid Gold)
For Celia, on her birthday
Napoleon bounced the eraser end of his yellow pencil against his desk. It hopped about three inches in the air, jumped once more against the corner of the eraser, then fell, point first, leaving a dark gray mark across the expense report he had been avoiding all morning. He picked up the pencil without erasing the damage it had done, flipping it between his fingers as he stared over at the blond head across the room. Illya nodded in time with his typing, pausing only to rip out a completed sheet of paper and set it neatly on top of the others before reloading a blank one-all without sparing Napoleon a glance As he set forth now to repeat this pattern, Napoleon, shaking his head in disgust, banged his pencil hand against the desk and captured his partner's attention at last. "I don't know how you can work like this," Napoleon complained.
Illya sighed. "I have work to do," he pointed out. "As do you." He aligned a new sheet of blank paper in the typewriter while studying the clock hanging over his partner's head.
Napoleon glanced over his shoulder so he could see the clock as well. "Did they say what time they were coming?"
"Not to me." Illya paused to check a note he had made on the legal pad that lay to his left before hammer away on the keys once again. "But then, they seemed to think I was less than trustworthy."
"And here I thought infiltration was one of your fortes. Some spy you are."
Illya glanced at the clock again and shook his head. "I wish you would stop your obsession with this," he said, frowning as one of the keys refused to move, despite his best efforts. He slammed his thumb against it and was rewarded, finally, with a satisfying "click!" "It's just a joke," he continued, striking the key once again, with more force.
"I am not obsessing." And to prove this, he sat up in his chair, leaned forward over the desk, and watched with renewed interest as his right hand tapped the pencil against the paper. He noticed the long gray streak his bouncing pencil had left and moved to erase it. That done, he tried to read the last thing he had written before going home the night before, but lost interest after the first couple of words. He could hear the second hand ticking over Illya's frantic typing and wondered if Illya actually knew more about this than he was letting on, if he was lying to him, today of all days. He could probably make him feel guilty if he was-probably convince him to do the expense report once he finished with his novel over there. At any rate, a fight would serve to take him mind off...other things, and he could endure comments about his failing eyesight if it meant he didn't have to stare at this thing anymore. That decided, he flipped his pencil across his hand once more and called out, "Illya!"
His partner cursed as he hit the wrong key on the typewriter. He pushed away from the desk and rose rather violently, then stormed over to Napoleon's desk and picked up the bottle of Liquid Paper that was lying on the corner (Illya did not have his own, feeling it an unnecessary expense when he so rarely made mistakes-anyway, his partner always had some available on the few occasions when he did, in fact, require it). He palmed the bottle, returned to his seat, and sent an icy glare across the room. "Whether this behavior results from a belief that, because you were born on this date some decades ago this somehow excuses you from doing anything practical with yourself for a full twenty-four hours of your finite lifespan, or you are merely experiencing some existential angst at the prospect of growing older, I feel it necessary to remind you that, essentially, nothing has actually altered. You are still who you were when you got up yesterday, and, until we hear otherwise, you are still responsible for these reports. I also have it on good authority that your replacement, at such time as it becomes necessary that he assume your position, is not looking forward to being drowned in the paperwork you have left undone. I therefore suggest, with the utmost respect, as it is your birthday, that you get back to work and allow me to do the same." With that out of his system, he turned back to his typewriter, uncapped the bottle, and set up correcting his mistake in the neatest manner possible.
"That sounded like a thinly-veiled order to me, Illya," Napoleon observed, shaking his head. "Delusions of grandeur already? I'm not out of the office yet."
Illya rolled his eyes. "Hardly. Though it was you who suggested I work on my 'boss' technique."
"And that wasn't good at all," Napoleon said, shaking his head. "I do not feel motivated in the slightest. In fact, after that speech, I've decided that it's not my problem if this expense report doesn't get finished. I'm sure my 'replacement' will take care of it in due course." He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk, legs crossed, and willed himself to believe this position was actually comfortable. He tossed the pencil in the air for good measure and raised his eyebrows at Illya as he caught it.
He nearly lost his balance as his partner beamed the Liquid Paper bottle at his forehead. He managed to deflect it with his right palm, though he lost the pencil to the ground in the process. Both ended up somewhere under his desk. He gaped at his partner, who smiled. "I see you haven't lost those field-honed reflexes yet."
"Not bad, huh?" Napoleon settled back into his relaxed position arms behind his head. He left the office supplies for later retrieval.
"Nothing that can't be explained away by the unenviable effects of aging."
"Thank you so much for your sensitivity, Illya."
But Illya had gone back to his typewriter. He had managed to complete five new words when he looked up again and cocked his head toward the doorway. Napoleon, relieved that he would not have to contrive a new way to steal his partner's attention away from work, felt his initial relief fade as Illya met his eyes and announced, "I think they're coming."
Napoleon grimaced and eased his legs back to the floor. He straightened his tie and jacket, ignoring Illya's smirk, then bent over to retrieve the fallen items. He was therefore only aware of the arrival of the four younger agents when he glimpsed their legs and shoes from his vantage point under the desk. He made his first positive identification when he heard Alfredo Gonzalez call out, in his exaggerated English, "Hey Solo, you hiding down there, or did you throw your back out?"
Napoleon sat up and surveyed his visitors. Section Two, all of them, naturally, as this was a tradition reserved only for field agents. Not a one over thirty; once you hit that milestone, they said, you started to realize that playing hero was not slowing down the aging process. And suddenly it wasn't quite so funny to embarrass the old guy, since one day it just might be you behind that desk, hands thrust out in front of you while your younger partner looked on with a mixture of sympathy and amusement. He remembered how much he had enjoyed it before, the few times he'd gotten to be on the other side in his younger days, the years then stretching before him with no horizon in sight. Before Illya. It was all in good fun, of course, gave everyone something to laugh at, and tradition was important in an occupation as unpredictable as this one. So many didn't live to see their chaining day.
Behind the young agents, Illya watched with calm amusement. He'd told Napoleon recently (in the last few days there had been few other topics Napoleon seemed as anxious to discuss) that he'd never worked up the interest to participate in one of these in his youth but had, of late, become rather interested in the whole thing. He now wore a studious, neutral expression which somehow provided Napoleon the balance he needed. Assuming an air of insouciance, he straightened his jacket once more, toss the pencil and Liquid Paper to the corner of his desk, then leaned forward and folded his hands. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" he asked. "Agent Keaton?" he added, nodding at the petite brunette, who hurried into the office, quite out of breath, and stood next to her partner, Larry Timor.
Gonzalez snickered. "Come on, Napoleon, you know why we're here!"
Napoleon caught Illya's eye. The man had no subtlety.
"Let's see the cuffs!" Terry McKnight exclaimed.
Dom Christiansen, one of the younger agents Waverly had been pairing Illya with in recent months as Napoleon was gradually eased out of the field, produced them from the brown paper bag he was carrying. They were, indeed, solid gold, as tradition stated, a symbol not only that the wearer was moving up in the world (with the promotion to Section One, and the significant pay-raise that accompanied that), but that he had gone soft, could be secured with a much weaker substance than the iron they carried in the field. Illya, when asked his thoughts on the ceremony, had begun rambling on about El Dorado, slavery, and Sir Thomas More (sometimes spouting out phrases in Latin for the benefit of no one). Napoleon couldn't recall even the gist of what he'd said, but he got the feeling this was one of those rare occasions when his partner had missed the point entirely.
Sighing, he held out his hands as Gonzalez and Timor advanced on him, cuffs in hand. "Enjoy it while it lasts," he said, as Timor secured the bracelet to his left wrist.
Andrea Keaton laughed. "Come on Napoleon, be a good sport. I heard you loved this when you were a rookie."
"I was never a rookie," Napoleon said, offended. "I was just younger at some point than I am now." He looked up in embarrassment to see that, aside from the three agents that had originally accompanied Gonzalez and Timor, quite a crowd had gathered: some pushing into the actual office for a closer look, many more lingering in the hallway outside. There was a lot of laughter and pointing, and much whispered conversation; he caught comments of the sort: "I can't believe they're really going through with it!" "End of an era" and "Good on him to play along. I really thought he'd make a break for it or something. Still, he always did like to be the center of attention..." He tired to find Illya's eyes through the clamor of bodies, but his partner's desk was completely blocked. He didn't hear the typewriter, so he assumed that Illya was still watching.
Timor threaded the other bracelet through the handle of his locked top drawer. He blinked as the gold caught the glimmer of the overhead light, just as Timor locked the second bracelet into place. He probably took it for a wince; he patted Napoleon on the back as he stood. "See. Not so bad, eh, boss?"
Timor was almost twenty-nine. Perhaps he was trying to reassure himself.
"Of course, this isn't that bad part," McKnight observed, from the front of the raucous. "Imagine never leaving the office again!"
"Oh, you spoiled Enforcement boys!" scoffed Lydia, one of the girls from communication. She elbowed her way past Keaton and approached Napoleon's chair. "Congratulations," she said in a low voice. "And welcome to reality." She bent down and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Oh I don't know," said Napoleon, winking at Lydia as he addressed McKnight. "I think I could get used to this."
"After all, you never were one for work, eh, Solo?" Gonzalez said. "And I hear there's precious little of that up in the big office."
"Plus, I get a nice pair of handcuffs out of the deal," Napoleon observed. "Fourteen carat, eh?" He gestured so that the chains rattled. The onlookers began cheering and applauding, while Christiansen led them in a rousing chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Two of Lydia's compatriots, both blonde and voluptuous, eased their way to the front and followed her example.
"You wear them well, Solo," Timor said as he faded back into the crowd. Many of the others began heading toward the door. "Way to go, Solo," someone called, while Keaton, not to be outdone, pushed past the bevy of welcoming and affectionate female office-workers, and planted a kiss full on his lips. "Good luck getting out of this one, Napoleon," she called, and went to join her partner. Slowly, the girls grew bored with touching the handcuffs and kissing his cheek, and filed out in twos and threes, chatting and laughing as they left.
Then, finally, the office was empty, save for himself and the other official occupant. Illya had already turned back to his typewriter and seemed prepared to continue his report as though nothing had happened. He'd pressed a few keys but seemed reluctant to work himself into any sort of rhythm.
Napoleon cleared his throat. "Ah, a little help, partner."
Illya turned. "I actually think my work will go much more smoothly without your constant fiddling. I should have thought of this years ago."
"Ah, yes, but bonds of iron are no match for me. I have to be trussed in style."
"Well, as long as you're comfortable, I'll..."
His partner sighed. "There's a safety release on those."
"Yes, and damned if I can reach it from this position. Not very safe at all, if you ask me."
Illya rose and walked over. Bending down on one knee, he took his partner's hands in his own, turned the handcuffs over and released the catch on each of the bracelets so the fell away from Napoleon's wrists. The thick golden circles clanged against the desk drawer and hung there on the handle, glittering boldly.
Illya rubbed Napoleon's wrist with his thumb. "Was it so bad?" he asked softly.
Napoleon shrugged and placed his hands on top of his partner's. "Oh, not at all. Almost fun, really." He sighed. "I'm glad it's over.
"Nothing has changed," Illya insisted, his gaze almost anxious. "We still have these next couple of weeks. Then maybe Waverly will retire like he keeps promising."
"Or maybe he'll forget about that and we can just stay this way." It came out too quickly; he smiled. "I think that's what I said to my date on Prom Night. I thought I would have outgrown this by now."
"Well, maturity and age are rarely correlated," Illya observed dryly. "And I doubt Waverly will undermine the whole system just for you. It would be such a disappointment for all your adoring fans here at headquarters. Not to mention the youngsters who orchestrated this whole charade." He brushed a piece of still-black hair from Napoleon's forehead. "You'll feel better when you have a definite place to be."
Napoleon smiled. He pulled a hand away from Illya's grasp and played with the dangling chains. "Forty," he said.
"It's not so old. After all, Auguste Rodin didn't start working on The Gates of Hell until he was forty."
"And Thomas More was just that age when he wrote Utopia..."
"Please, you're making my head hurt..."
Napoleon shut his partner up in the most effective manner he knew-he tilted his head upward, pulled him close and kissed him.
Illya broke it off quickly (the door still stood wide open, and there was always the risk of late-comers). "Ah," he said, smiling a little. He shook his head so his hair grazed Napoleon's wrists. "What I meant was, it'll probably be even longer now that you're out of the field." He reached up and kiss Napoleon's forehead. "Happy birthday," he murmured.
He covered Illya's mouth again, the kiss short and chaste, like hands briefly clasped. He smiled as Illya's arm brushed the cuffs as he retreated back. "You know, you still haven't given me my birthday present."
Illya raised an inquiring eyebrow, his eyes following Napoleon's to their intended target. "But..."
"There's just something about gold that strikes me as luxuriously erotic. And it's not like they're good for much else." He shook his head. "Thomas More, honestly."
Illya let out a long-suffering sigh. "Suddenly everything must have a use."
"I'm getting thrifty in my old age."
Illya rolled his eyes. "We'll see," he said, disengaging himself from Napoleon's grasp. "Now if you have suitably recovered, perhaps you can find a way to be productive. The day, like some of us, is not so young, and I would be much happier if I knew that expense report was not waiting for my approval a few weeks on." With a last sardonic look at the gold handcuffs, he moved back to his own desk and began clattering away on the typewriter once again.