Napoleon Solo stopped by his partner's office on his way to a staff meeting. "Illya," he said from the door and Illya Kuryakin looked up, blinked to clear away the mists of whatever he had been working on and smiled. A few strands of long blond hair had escaped from his ponytail and Napoleon smiled too, seeing them. He wanted to tuck them back behind Illya's ears for him, but of course he didn't.
"Want me to pick you up later? You could spend the night if you like—then we could leave for the museum right from my place in the morning."
"Oh." Illya looked disconcerted. "That would be nice. But I'm going out tonight."
"Yes." Illya laughed a little. "I'm going dancing with Jess."
"With Jess? Jess Coleman?" The new head of security's open pursuit of Illya was no secret—that Illya might possibly allow himself to be caught was a surprise. "Ah—what are you two doing—going to one of those—ah, bars?"
"No." Illya blushed furiously. "Of course not. I would never go to one of those places. It could only end badly."
"The kind of ending that involves ambulances? Body bags?" Napoleon leaned against the door jamb, trying at the same time to contain his interest—really none of his business what Illya did on his own time—and his chagrin that Illya was unavailable. They had always worked their plans around his own social life
"Maybe. Someone might touch me and then I would have to kill them, Napoleon, you know I would."
"Since I wouldn't be there." Twice during the past few years Illya had come to him, rather diffidently, to complain of unwanted attentions that had not stopped at his request. Both men had been transferred promptly at Napoleon's instigation—and they had not been upward transfers either.
"Since you wouldn't be there," Illya agreed.
"Jess has two lesbian friends. We all go together and dance in a group. It's fun. I like to dance."
"So will you pick me up at my place tomorrow morning? The museum opens at 9:00 and it will take the whole day to see the exhibit the way I want to."
"Sure. See you then. Illya—you do know about Jess, don't you?"
"Yes, Napoleon." Illya smiled at him, pleased by Napoleon's concern. "It's hardly a secret."
"I would have thought that would put you off."
"So would I. But it's all right. It's different. I never knew it could be—light, before. And Jess listens to me, Napoleon. He knows I don't want to."
"People are talking."
"So? People are always talking about one thing or another."
"You're spending your off duty time with two avowed lesbians and an openly gay man. People might think you were—ah, that way yourself."
"You know better than that, Napoleon. I'm nothing. That's why I can go anywhere and belong—nowhere." Illya was smiling as he said it but his eyes weren't, they were sad, suddenly, and Napoleon took a step towards him. But Illya shook his head and pushed back a little from his desk. "Goodnight, Napoleon. Thank you for thinking of me. If you had asked me sooner I probably would have told Jess no."
"Would you?" Napoleon was pleased. "We can do it tomorrow night. After the museum."
"I'd like that. Good. I'll look forward to it. I'll see you in the morning."
But when Napoleon and his date came into his apartment that evening, and Napoleon checked his E-mail he found a message from Illya. "Pick me up in front of Jess's in the morning instead. Sleep well." Napoleon stood and frowned at the computer screen while he unknotted his tie. He had gone out too after work, calling Maggie, who was always available to him and going dancing himself—to an expensive hotel restaurant that featured a big band, softly colored lights, a champagne buffet and exquisite food. As they had circled the dance floor, bodies pressed close, he had tried not to think about what Illya was doing right at that moment, in an apparently innocuous mixed group, dancing up a storm at some trendy night club. What did he care where Illya spent his evenings? He and Illya were friends—best friends, true, but still only friends as well as coworkers. He should be glad for Illya, that he was allowing someone to get close to him—someone else to get close. It should please him. That it didn't Napoleon ascribed to concern.
He was concerned, that was all. He didn't want to see Illya get hurt. He didn't want Illya to let down those walls and open himself to Jess Coleman only to be left behind when Coleman moved on to his next conquest. That was it. As Napoleon bent Maggie backwards in an extravagant dip, looking down into her pretty, laughing face he was pleased with himself. He was a good friend, who didn't want to see his friend hurt. Yes. That was all it was.
Now, listening to Maggie make herself comfortable in the living room, Napoleon scowled at the computer screen. Illya was spending the night with Coleman? Well, Illya was an adult. He knew what he was doing. And Illya was certainly entitled—but it made Napoleon angry anyway. It made him angry because—because he knew Coleman was a—a—Napoleon recognized himself in the man, despite the obvious difference.
Jess Coleman had already cut a wide swath through the limited ranks of gay and bisexual men at headquarters and, had he been so inclined, would have had his pick of women as well. Standing six feet two inches tall, Jess was broad shouldered and tan, with dark wavy hair and cobalt blue eyes. It was only in his orientation that his romantic pattern differed from Napoleon's. Napoleon frowned again. No, that wasn't so. The other difference was that Napoleon only courted women who knew the score and understood the game. Clearly Coleman had no such scruples because Illya didn't know the score. Illya was—Illya was innocent. He was vulnerable. If Coleman had indeed broken down that reserve, then Illya would give himself wholeheartedly, and end up alone and hurt and in that case Coleman would wish he had only been transferred. Because Napoleon cared about Illya. He did—as a friend, as his best friend—and anyone who hurt Illya would pay and pay dearly. This might be the most expensive night of Jess Coleman's life. It just might be.
"Napoleon?" Maggie came up behind him, slid her arms around his waist, snuggled close. "Would you like me to fix you a drink?"
"Yes please," he answered, turning and smiling at her. "We'll have them in the bedroom."
Maggie knew the score, Napoleon reflected later as he slipped easily inside her. She wasn't vulnerable—certainly not innocent. Not—he closed his eyes as her nails traced a path down his back—innocent at all.
Napoleon slept alone, having packed Maggie into a cab when they were done. Spread-eagled on his bed, he stared at the ceiling. He always wanted them to leave as soon as it was finished. He disliked having anyone around in the morning—except for Illya, of course. And even Illya had his own room. Napoleon had had the big guest room redone for Illya a few years ago, over his initial protests. "Tell me what you like," Napoleon had said. "I know you're not a fan of Victoriana so you must hate the way it is now."
"You can't redecorate it just the way I like it," Illya had protested. "What if another guest doesn't like what I like? You should make it neutral, if you're going to change it at all."
"I never have other guests."
"You might. And what about all those women? Aren't they guests?"
"All those women, as you put it, come to my room and then they go home. And if I ever do have another guest he or she can just sleep on the sofa bed. This is your room. That's how I want it. I want you to have your own room here so you know you're always welcome."
"Oh." Illya hadn't known what to say to that. "All right." So he acquiesced to Napoleon's wishes, as he always did, because he couldn't stand against Napoleon in anything, and besides he liked pleasing Napoleon—he adored Napoleon. He tried to keep it from his eyes and his voice because Napoleon didn't like being cared about too much, Illya knew that about his friend. When women cared too much Napoleon dropped them with a haste that went oddly with his usual courtly style. So now Illya tried to conceal how very happy it made him that Napoleon had said he was always welcome there, and selected paint and floor coverings and blinds and bedding and the very next time he came it was exactly the way he'd wanted and it made him so happy... Illya never invited himself over, and of course never reciprocated the invitation—he had a studio apartment up four flights of stairs and one narrow bed—besides Napoleon liked being at his own place. He never went to his women's apartments either; he liked being on his own territory because Napoleon liked to be in control all the time and that was one of the things that Illya liked about him. Napoleon being in charge made Illya feel safe, and protected, and cared for. So they were both pleased with the arrangements and Illya slept over in 'his' room at least once a month and more often than that, sometimes.
The next morning, bright and early, Napoleon pulled up in front of Jess Coleman's building. Coleman had a loft in Soho, not too far from Illya's own West Village address. The ground floor was a clothing manufacturer's headquarters, closed now on a Saturday morning. And Illya was out front and he was holding a leash at the end of which was a formidable looking dog. He and Coleman were on good terms, Napoleon thought, and at least Coleman let him stay the night, although that he was probably still warm and snug in bed while Illya did his chores angered Napoleon all over again.
Illya waved. "You can park around back," he called. "I have to walk Samson first."
"All right." After Napoleon had parked and come back Illya fell into step beside him, the dog eyeing Napoleon as if he were a particularly tempting bone. "Does he bite?" Napoleon asked, trying to be easy, to be natural, because how many times had Illya come over and found one woman or another there and it was the same thing, or at least it should be...
"Yes," Illya said, and laughed. "Don't try to pet him."
"Don't worry." The animal was stocky, with ferocious looking jaws and piercing brown eyes that stayed on Napoleon. "You have a leaf in your hair..." Napoleon reached out to brush it away and froze when the animal growled deep in its chest.
"It would probably be better if you didn't try to pet me either. He likes me. Quiet, Samson," he added and patted the beast's head. It turned its gaze from Napoleon long enough to give Illya a worshipful look and lick his hand.
"So where's Coleman?" Napoleon asked, having moved a prudent step away. "Why isn't he walking his own dog?" He was put out—Illya had never said don't touch before, and it annoyed him even though the cause was obvious—and more than sufficient.
Illya, who regretted himself that he hadn't been able to allow Napoleon to remove the leaf from his hair, paused while Samson investigated a sign post, lifted his leg and directed a stream of yellow liquid at it. "He's not here. He's with someone he met last night."
"Already?" Napoleon stopped and stared at Illya. "He went off to sleep with someone else and left you to walk his dog?"
"He asked me if I'd mind and I said no. I like Samson." Illya patted the dog again, and it rubbed itself against him, almost knocking him over. "I'm thinking of getting one. But mine would like you," he added, laughing again. "I promise."
"It seems a bit much to me. Even I don't do that."
Illya stopped and stared at Napoleon in his turn. "Excuse me? Even you don't do what?"
"Well, I may encourage them to leave early, but I certainly don't hopscotch right into another bed while they run my errands even if they don't mind." Napoleon stuffed his hands into his pockets and looked away, first while the dog did his other business, then while Illya neatly cleaned it up, depositing the plastic bag and gloves in a nearby trash can and using an antiseptic wipe on his hands.
"Napoleon—I really don't—Samson, no!" he added sharply. A smaller dog had trotted up to them and Samson growled again, lunging forward. Illya struggled to hang onto the leash. "No, Samson! Sit! Sit I said!" Reluctantly the animal lowered its haunches to the ground. "Wicked dog," Illya told him, but his voice belied his words and the dog promptly fell over on its side, then rolled onto its back. Illya bent over and rubbed its stomach. "It's not nice to eat other people's pets," he lectured it. "He would, too," he added to Napoleon as they continued on their way around the block. "Pit bulls can be like that."
"So that's a pit bull?"
"Yes. Jess says it's more protection per pound than any other dog alive." He patted it again and it drooled on his hand. Illya wiped the hand on his jeans and gave Napoleon a puzzled look. He couldn't quite fathom Napoleon's mood—he seemed annoyed—perhaps it was just the dog. Napoleon was not a big fan of wildlife in any of its forms. "You can wait here," he offered as they came back around to the front of the building. "I'll take him up and feed him and meet you back here."
"After you wash your hands," Napoleon said, then was sorry. But Illya, not offended, only laughed again. He certainly was in high spirits, Napoleon reflected, and was angry all over again.
"Yes. After I wash my hands."
"I'll come up," Napoleon said—not that he didn't believe Illya, not that he expected to find Coleman doing something cozy like frying eggs for two, but he did want to see the situation for himself. So he followed Illya inside, past the first door, up in the freight elevator which opened directly into the loft. Inside Samson stopped, faced Napoleon and growled, louder this time and more menacingly.
"Stop that," Illya said and pushed his nose away from Napoleon's leg. The animal spared him a brief look, then returned his attention to Napoleon. "He's not sure it's all right for you to be in here," Illya explained.
"I'm beginning to agree with him," Napoleon said and backed up a step.
"Sit," Illya ordered again, then, more forcefully, "Samson! Sit!" The dog obeyed but clearly wasn't happy about it. "He minds Jess much better than he does me," Illya explained. "Let me try what Jess did." He moved closer to Napoleon, put an arm around his waist, hugged him briefly. Then, before Napoleon could recover from his surprise Illya crouched in front of Samson and let the dog sniff him all over, with special attention to his hand and arm where they had come in contact with Napoleon. Samson snuffed up and down, looked at Napoleon with that disconcertingly direct stare, then gave Illya's face an enthusiastic licking. "Good dog," Illya said and went over to the kitchen counter. Samson followed, his whole back end wagging with joy as Illya poured some kibble into a bowl. The dog ignored Napoleon, seemingly content to take Illya's word for his good character. "Don't come near his food," Illya warned as he set the dish on the floor, and began filling a water bowl while Samson applied himself to his breakfast, hind end still wagging vigorously. It was the best he could do, since his tail was only a little nub.
"I won't. Shouldn't you be more careful?"
"I told you he likes me. See?" Illya crouched again and put his hand into the dog's dish, stirring the kibble around, and then actually sticking his hand into that cavernous mouth to pull some food back out. Samson only wagged harder and licked Illya's face again. "Don't you try that." Illya rose. "Let me clean up."
"Are you really leaving me alone with that—that?"
"No, but it's all right now anyway. He knows you're with me. I should have done that before" he gave Napoleon a sideways look "but out on the street and all, I was shy."
"You were what?" Illya had gone to the sink and was scrubbing his hands and face thoroughly.
"Shy." He finished and dried off with a paper towel from the roll above the sink.
"Since when?" Napoleon had actually been delighted with the contact—it was so rare that Illya initiated any. "I've never heard you call yourself that before."
"I know. That's Jess. That's what he says about me. Ready?"
Out in the street again, away from the menacing presence of Samson, Napoleon returned to his original line of questioning. "Illya—doesn't it bother you at all that Coleman is off with someone else? After last night? Didn't that mean anything to you either?"
"After—oh!" Illya blushed crimson. "You think—you think I spent the night?"
"No, of course not. How could you—oh." Not only Napoleon's words but his attitude suddenly made sense. "No, Napoleon. Jess met Ray last night,and asked me if I'd mind coming by this morning to walk Samson. It's hard to find a dog walker for him."
"I imagine it would be." Napoleon was relieved. He had always assumed that if Illya ever did—if those protective barriers ever did come down, that it would be real, that it would be special. He had been baffled—and disappointed—by his partner's seemingly casual acceptance of his new lover's behavior.
"You really thought—why on earth would you think that?"
"Well—you're human, aren't you? With natural, human needs?"
Illya blushed again, fastening his seat belt. "You know better than that. Or you should."
Napoleon was silent. He knew what Illya meant. He was referring to a night years ago, when he had told Napoleon the details of his childhood, a childhood that had been so nightmarish that if Illya did have natural human desires they had been frozen solid and buried deep.
The mission had ended badly. Successfully, of course, success snatched from the very brink of disaster, but badly. They had been betrayed not once but twice, and three innocent civilians had died as a result. Then, their report filed, they had been told it would be handled internally, but it wouldn't, they both knew it—the men responsible would be honorably retired. Napoleon had wanted to kill them and Illya, while sympathetic, had talked him out of it. "They'd know it was you—us," he'd said practically. "And we wouldn't be honorably retired. We'd be arrested—I'd probably be deported. I'll help you if you insist, but I really think we shouldn't." Napoleon had reluctantly conceded that Illya was right, and while he wouldn't have minded risking his own liberty—not right then, in the heat of his anger—he wouldn't risk Illya's, which Illya had known. And, of course, when Napoleon's anger had cooled he had been glad that one of them had remained sensible. But the whole thing had left a bad taste in both their mouths and despite the forecast for snow they had packed up the only rental car they could get at such short notice, an ancient Volkswagen Bug, and driven out that night.
The blizzard had stranded them on I-40 in the middle of the Appalachian Mountain chain when the tractor trailer in front of them had jackknifed, blocking both lanes, finally and completely stopping their painstaking progress. As the sky grew dark and the wind howled, the snow drifted around the car, covering the exhaust pipe, making it too dangerous to keep the engine running. Napoleon had called for help but just as they couldn't get out, no one could get in to them. They shared a granola bar from their small stock of supplies and as it grew even colder huddled together in the back seat. Napoleon had taken a blanket from the trunk and come back in, stomping snow from his shoes before closing the car door again. He spread the blanket over his own shoulders then drew Illya in, wrapping both arms and the blanket around him. It was almost tolerable, the two of them and their blanket inside the little car and as their shivering abated Illya put his head on Napoleon's shoulder and Napoleon held him closer. It was an odd sensation, surrounded by stranded motorists but unable to see through the thick curtain of white, knowing those other people were also doing what they could to survive the night; the two of them as isolated as if they were the only living souls on the planet. Illya's breath was warm on Napoleon's neck and Napoleon—profoundly guilt stricken because it had been his decision to leave despite the weather predictions; his leading and Illya following as he always did, uncomplaining even now, when Napoleon's impulsive decision might well cost them their lives—cradled his partner in his arms, wanting desperately to make up for their predicament somehow. "I'm sorry," he whispered finally, and Illya shook his head.
"You know," he whispered back, knowing Napoleon, knowing he was punishing himself for their situation, wishing he had found the right words to stop him earlier, wanting to give him something now, "if anyone had told me, before I met you, that this" Illya moved even closer, "could be" sweet, he almost said, and didn't, "nice" he said instead, "I wouldn't have believed them."
"No. I hate being touched."
"But not by you."
"Yes. Can you—do you want to tell me why? Why you don't like being touched? You don't have to," he added hastily—Illya was so private, Napoleon didn't want to push him away now, when they were so close—"but it seems something bad must have happened to you at some point. Something really bad, for you to feel that way, so strongly—sometimes it helps, to share it."
"You might think less of me."
"No. I wouldn't. You and I—we're partners. More than partners. I'm on your side, always, no matter what. You know that."
"Yes... this is different, though."
"Trust me." He said it simply, and Illya, touched, rubbed his face on the rough material of Napoleon's coat, and told him. He told Napoleon about the uncle who'd raised him, about the beatings and the starvation, about being locked out in the bitter cold of a Ukrainian winter, about being locked in a small exposed storage shed in the heat of summer. Then, voice lower, he told about his uncle's hands, which had taught him all he ever wanted to know about being touched and, when he was a little older—but still young, still pitifully young—about being raped with violence and a savage pleasure in his own pain and fear and shame... his voice was a whisper by now, right in Napoleon's ear and Napoleon, not knowing what to say, only held Illya and listened, and patted him occasionally and finally, when Illya broke down and wept against his chest Napoleon rocked him and smoothed his hair, still wordless but trying his best to convey, through his touch and his presence, how much he cared and that he didn't think less of Illya, not at all, and that Illya had overcome all that and become the finest man Napoleon had ever known filled him with awe, and respect, and compassion. Illya had finally fallen asleep in Napoleon's arms and Napoleon had kept watch, afraid that if they both slept they might not wake up again.
With morning had come a snowplow, followed by rescue vehicles and they had been driven to a Red Cross shelter where they had been fed soup and sandwiches and hot coffee until the big Greyhound bus had arrived and taken them with their fellow travelers into Asheville, North Carolina. There, after a night in a motel waiting for the runways to be cleared they had flown out, first to Charlotte, then back to New York. They had never spoken of that night again. But Napoleon remembered, and when Illya had come to him about first one man and then the other he had acted with that memory as fresh in his mind as if Illya had told his secrets only the day before.
They were back in Napoleon's apartment that night, eating take out Chinese food on the sofa and watching the fire in Napoleon's wood burning fireplace when Napoleon spoke again. They had spent the day in companionable silence, broken only by comments about what they were seeing, strolling through the museum, reading placards, watching three informative videos, stopping for lunch in the small cafe on the terrace—it had been a very pleasant day, and Napoleon hadn't wanted to disrupt the mood by any references to—anything. But now—"Doesn't it bother you, that Jess is so obvious about what he wants? Light or not?"
"No." Illya frowned, thinking. "It's so different from—Jess is kind. He is basically a very kind person. He doesn't know—anything, of course, but he knows I don't want to and even though he thinks he could change my mind he doesn't push it. It's—it's fun, in a way. He says ridiculous things to me..."
Illya blushed. "Well, about—about my eyes, and my smile, and last night, when we were all dancing and my hair came out of its ponytail he was comparing it to all kinds of silly things, like a rushing river, and amber waves of grain" he blushed deeper. "Never mind. I told you it was silly. But still—it's nice."
"I suppose it would be." Jess had seen Illya's hair down? Napoleon had only seen it loose from its prudent confinement when they were in the field, seen it twice, and even then in the heat of action Illya had pulled it back immediately—sensible, of course, it could only be in the way, but Napoleon remembered how lovely it was, the way it softened Illya's face. He could just imagine how in a nightclub with no pressing danger to distract it would catch the lights and... Napoleon shook himself. Why on earth should he care if Coleman had seen... touched... "Did he help you tie it back?"
"No." Illya looked at Napoleon oddly. "I don't let Jess touch me. It wouldn't be fair. It would make him think... things. Why do you ask?"
"I don't know." He didn't. "Want some more rice?"
"No, thank you."
"I've never seen it down," Napoleon said abruptly. "Not when we weren't running for our lives."
"Oh." Illya was at a loss. "Um—do you want to?" Did Napoleon think Jess had some sort of advantage now? Napoleon was so funny. But so sweet, too, and so dear... Illya smiled at him. "I'll untie it, if you want me to. I don't mind—it just doesn't seem appropriate when we're working." He reached back, unfastened the band he wore and let his hair fall around his face, down his arms and back, nearly to his waist.
"Why do you keep it so long?" Napoleon asked, fascinated. He reached out, freed one strand which had gotten caught on Illya's ear. Illya sat very still for the touch, then shivered. "Cold?"
I—no. I don't think so. Uh—why do I... oh. I didn't used to know why, but after—after that night in the car, when we talked?"
"I thought about it again and it's because of him."
"I don't understand. I would think he would have liked it." Napoleon touched it again. "It's beautiful." And so are you, he thought, looking down into Illya's slightly tilted, long lashed blue eyes. It was not the sort of beauty Napoleon sought in women—owing nothing to curves or artifice, sexual allure or sophistication. Illya's pure, fragile beauty was in his bones as well as in his coloring. It would be there when Illya was eighty. "It's very beautiful." And how wonderful that sounded—more wonderful by far than all Jess's flowery praises.
"Um, thank you. Yes he did like it—but I didn't really understand that then. All I knew was that I could hide behind it when I needed to, and that it felt good on my bare skin—nothing else did except the water when I swam and then my hair felt nice in the water too—and he would threaten to pull it all out if I wasn't good, so I always thought he might. I see now he wouldn't have, but at the time it seemed like something of mine that I had in spite of him."
"And you still hide behind it." Illya was, head bent, face concealed behind that silken curtain. At Napoleon's words he shook it back, smiling.
"I know. And it still feels good on my skin. Like the water." And your hands... Illya blushed again at the thought, and stood up. Napoleon did too and they faced each other. "Napoleon?"
"Yes?" They were standing very close together now, he could see Illya trembling and in one more minute he was going to...
"I'm tired. I'm going to shower and go to bed now, if that's all right."
"Yes. Of course. Goodnight, Illya. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes. I had fun today, Napoleon."
"I did too." They parted, then, without another word and certainly without another touch, and Napoleon stood and watched Illya's retreating back until the bedroom door shut behind him, and then Napoleon closed the fire screen, turned out the lights and went to bed himself, where he lay awake for a long time, thinking.
"Illya—it's been months now." Jess stood by his door and Illya, who had been gathering up his coat and hat to leave, stopped.
"Months of what?"
"Of this—this one sided courtship."
"Is that all it is?" Illya was hurt, and didn't care that it showed. "I thought we were friends."
"We are friends. But I want us to be more. You know that."
"You don't know that?"
"Stop it. You know what I mean. No. I don't want to be more than friends. What does that mean, anyway? Nothing is more than friends. Friends is the best thing there is. Anything else would ruin it."
"That's where you're wrong, my little cannoli. Anything else, as you so delicately put it, would make it better."
"No it wouldn't." Illya backed up as Jess came closer. "Don't touch me."
"Illya—I will never lay one finger on you without your express permission. But I have to say—please? Please may I touch you?"
"May I just touch your hair?"
"Who hurt you so badly, Illya? Tell me."
"What—why would you say that?"
"It doesn't take a genius to figure it out. Tell me."
"So someone has."
"I'm not telling you anything."
"All right. I respect your privacy—I respect you. But I can respect you and have fun with you all at the same time."
"It has been fun."
"It could be lots more fun than this, and you know that too."
"No I don't."
"You don't? Really?"
"Then how can you be so sure? It seems to me you're making decisions with insufficient data. How do you know you wouldn't like it if you won't try it?"
"I don't have to try it. I don't want to. And if you keep insisting on it I won't be able to come here anymore."
"What'll you do, have Solo transfer me to Outer Mongolia?"
"No. Because I won't have to go to Napoleon about you. I know you, Jess. But I still don't want—anything."
"I'll go back to my original question. How do you know? Maybe it'd be great. Maybe you'd really like it. I'm just saying don't shut me down without giving me a fair trial."
"What's your idea of a fair trial?"
"Well—let me kiss you. I'm considered a wonderful kisser. Just let me kiss you, once, with all my expertise."
"I don't really want to kiss you."
"Did I say you had to? I'll do all the kissing. You just stand there and think of England."
Illya laughed. "England? Why on earth should I think of England?"
"That's what Victorian mamas told their virgin daughters."
"I don't want to do anything else. And don't squeeze me."
"I won't. Does that mean yes?" Jess moved closer, reached behind Illya, stroked his ponytail.
"That's not kissing. You're cheating already."
"Just setting the stage."
"Don't set it any more. And I don't want your tongue in my mouth either."
"Wild horses won't pry it out of my lips. All right?"
"What do I do when I want you to stop?"
"Just tap me on the shoulder. But I'm pretty sure you won't be tapping."
"What exactly do you expect me to do?"
"Swoon in my arms, rub up against me, open your mouth and suck the tongue you're currently so scornful of right in."
"Oh, Jess." Illya looked at him sorrowfully. "You're going to be so disappointed. Will this be the end of it then? Can we just be friends after this?"
"Illya—if you remain unmoved by my best kissing,, I swear I'll never court you again. We'll be buddies, pals, compadres."
"All right? Does that mean you're giving me permission? I don't want to presume."
"You're already very presumptuous and yes, you have my permission." Jess looked at him. Illya closed his eyes, tipped his head back a little and waited, arms at his sides, lips primly closed.
Carefully, Jess cupped that beautiful face between his hands and kissed him. He kissed Illya with all the desire he felt, all the skill he possessed, all the warmth and ardor of his nature. And Illya let him and felt—nothing. He was a little disappointed, although he'd expected no more—that part of his nature was frozen and dead, killed when he was just a child and never reborn. Jess's lips on his were warm, and not unpleasant; there was nothing threatening or painful about it, but it moved him not at all. Illya stood there and waited for it to be over and when after a while it wasn't he tapped on Jess's shoulder and was released. They regarded each other.
Illya sighed. "I'm sorry," he said and Jess shook his head.
"How can you be so cold?" he asked in wonder. "How can that not have touched you at all? Everyone warned me that I was chasing a snowy will o' the wisp, that you were frigid right down to your bones, but I know better. You're not cold, you're warm and inherently so sensuous—I know I'm not wrong about you. And yet—you felt nothing of what I was feeling, did you."
"No." Illya saw how crestfallen Jess was, and felt sorry. "It wasn't bad," he offered. "It just wasn't—whatever it was you expected it to be for me. Whatever it was for you."
"Is it because I'm a man? Have you felt that for women?"
"Have you ever felt it?"
"There's no one else—no one in all the earth who makes you tremble at a touch, whose—whose hot breath on your skin makes you shiver, who..." Jess saw Illya's eyes change and pounced. "Aha! That rings a bell. Who?"
Illya stared at him. "But—it doesn't mean that. It can't. We—we're friends." He saw the look on Jess's face and closed his mouth.
"Ah, no," Jess said softly, and now he was sorry too. "You can't be serious."
"Leave me alone."
"I said leave me alone!"
"Illya—you know that's nothing but a recipe for heartbreak, don't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Didn't he? When Napoleon touched him he did tremble—even when Napoleon was close to him, like the other night—and Napoleon's breath—Illya shivered again, remembering.
"You go home and think it through," Jess said finally. "You think about whether you want to waste your youth and your—your passion chasing after a man who never gives you a second thought, or if you want to try and find some pleasure with me instead—if you can."
"I don't chase after Napoleon!"
"No, you follow him around like... like someone in love. I should have seen it before."
"Leave me alone. I am going home. I wish I hadn't come. I knew this would ruin it. I told you." Illya started for the door.
"Illya—wait." Jess reached out to catch his arm, and Illya recoiled.
"Don't touch me!"
"I won't. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Forgive me?" Jess held out his hand and after a long moment Illya took it, allowed the brief contact and then pulled free, said his goodnights and went home.
As it happened, Illya had promised Napoleon to come over the next night. He thought about canceling, but that would be silly—Napoleon had no idea—and Jess was wrong anyway—he didn't—but the fact so bluntly put to him wouldn't go away just because he didn't want to see it. Was he in love with Napoleon? Illya turned this new idea over and over in his mind. Was he? Could it be possible that those feelings weren't dead in him after all; that he, like any other person, could love? Could fall in love? But did that mean—did that mean he would feel—those feelings? Could feel them? If Napoleon kissed him the way Jess had—oh, if Napoleon did—he wouldn't stand unmoved then. He wouldn't tap Napoleon's shoulder to tell him to stop. He would... he would do all the things Jess had wanted and more—but Jess was right. Napoleon would never—Napoleon would never kiss him. That would never be for him—and he could never let Napoleon know how he felt. Well, that wouldn't be hard. He'd always known not to let Napoleon see the depths of his feelings—this new dimension to them was just another aspect to keep from him. But Jess was wrong, too. Napoleon was his friend, did give him a second thought, and more—did care about him, and surely that was enough for him. And tonight—perhaps Napoleon would touch him—ask to see his hair down again, maybe—or rub his back the way he did sometimes... so Illya counted the hours until they would be together, and hugged his new secret to himself like a child with a wonderful present, rejoicing in his own hitherto unsuspected capacity to love.
The first thing Napoleon did when the door closed behind them that night was to pull Illya's band off, spreading his hair out on his shoulders. "There," Napoleon said, and smiled, not seeming to notice Illya's confusion. "I've been waiting all day to do that."
"Come in, get comfortable. Let's change into pajamas and I'll mix us a pitcher of margaritas. You still like those, don't you?"
"Yes." Illya was blushing now, delighted by Napoleon's pleasure in his hair. Daring, he lifted his eyes to those brown ones, saw the warmth in them, and looked down again. "All right. I will." He went in and put on the pajamas he kept there, coming back out to see Napoleon similarly—if far more elegantly—attired, and accepted the chilled glass he was offered.
They settled on the sofa in front of the fire, lights dimmed, classical music playing softly in the background and Illya sighed, relaxing against the cushions. "It's so nice here," he said after a moment and Napoleon smiled.
"I'm glad." He was. He had thought about this all that night when Illya had been here, sleeping so chastely in his own bed, and thought about it, too, through the days and nights following. Napoleon Solo was a man of insight, into himself as well as others, and now he analyzed his own feelings carefully.
For one thing, he didn't like the amount of time Illya was spending with Jess Coleman, didn't like the security chief's obvious interest, didn't like any of it. And why? He was jealous. He had never been jealous before, but he was now. He was accustomed to being the most important person in Illya's life, the center of Illya's off duty activities. He was accustomed to being the only one whose touch Illya allowed, the only one who could make him laugh or, increasingly, blush so becomingly. And yet—he'd seen Coleman make Illya laugh, make Illya throw his head back and laugh out loud. Had known what Coleman wanted and had thought—how dare you. How dare you even think—Illya was his. His. And although Napoleon had never so much as thought of being with another man in a sexual way—now he wanted to. Wanted to introduce Illya to pleasure, watch Illya melt in his arms, under his touch. Wanted to make Illya forget all the horror that had gone before, to erase his uncle and the things his uncle had done to him from his mind completely, to fill Illya's mind with himself, pushing out everything—and everyone—else. Including Jess Coleman.
So now, tonight, Napoleon went after what he wanted the only way he knew how. He got Illya out of his work clothes, put a drink in his hands, turned the lights and the music down low, sat them in front of the fire on his comfortable sofa, and moved closer. "So how are things going with Jess?" he asked, and could have kicked himself. That wasn't what he had wanted to say—why was he bringing Coleman up at all?
"Well—he kissed me." Why did I say that? Illya wondered wildly. He hadn't meant to ever tell Napoleon that. But Napoleon had asked and Illya had answered the way he always did, and he certainly hoped it didn't occur to Napoleon to ask if Illya were in love with him because Illya would probably answer that too, although... he bit his lip and shook his hair forward over his face.
"He kissed you?" And when Illya retreated behind that shimmering curtain Napoleon wanted to brush it back, to feel it between his fingers.
"Did—did you want him to? He didn't force you, did he?" And if he did I won't transfer him anywhere except straight to hell with my own bare hands.
"He asked me—and I said yes. Because he kept thinking that maybe I'd like it. It didn't seem fair to have him keep thinking that. So I let him."
"And did you like it?" It was an intrusive question but Illya just shrugged, running his forefinger around the rim of his glass, then licking the salt off, making Napoleon want—suddenly, savagely want—to do it for him, and then to lick the faint traces of salt visible on Illya's lips, and then to...
"I didn't not like it. It wasn't anything bad. But it wasn't—I didn't—he said I was cold." Illya smiled faintly. "I could have told him that in the first place."
"You're not cold, Illya. You're just—damaged."
"I didn't mean it like that. Hurt. Is that better? You've been hurt."
"That's what Jess said. He asked who had hurt me so badly."
"Did you tell him?"
"No." Illya looked shocked. "I could never tell anyone—well." He blushed again. "Except for you. And George." Napoleon reached out, laid the back of his hand against Illya's cheek, wanting those eyes to meet his. They did—wide, startled—and was there something more? Napoleon hoped so—oh, he hoped so. "You're touching my face," Illya whispered, wondering if Napoleon even knew what he was doing. It was so uncharacteristic—and so wonderful...
"Do you mind?"
"No. He—he asked me if there was anyone else."
"I—I don't know. Jess said if there was someone whose touch made me tremble" Illya swallowed, lowered his eyes again because he was undeniably trembling, he could feel it and surely Napoleon could see it and he couldn't seem to stop himself from saying these things after all.
Napoleon moved nearer, and he did gather Illya's hair in his hands, pushed it gently behind his shoulders. "Are you cold?"
"Did he say anything else?"
"That if your—I mean his—I mean someone's" he couldn't be wrong, he couldn't be wrong, Napoleon was drawing him closer and Illya dared another upward look and he knew that expression, had seen it second hand hundreds of times; Napoleon was going to kiss him, he could tell. Incredible as that was, Napoleon was going to kiss him, and even if nothing else ever came of it he would know how that felt, he would know if he could feel... Napoleon's mouth had replaced his hand on Illya's face, lips brushing Illya's temple, his jaw.
Illya swallowed. "What?"
"If someone's—what?" Illya's skin was so soft, and so smooth, and Illya smelled and tasted so good...
"Hot breath. Um, if your—if someone's hot breath made me shiver."
"You're shivering now."
"I know. Oh, Napoleon—if you're just teasing me tell me now. I can bear it now, I think, but not for much longer."
Napoleon drew back. "Jess was gentleman enough to ask your permission. I can hardly do less. Illya—my dearest friend, my only love—may I kiss you?"
"Yes," Illya whispered, and there was nothing said about how to stop it and then Napoleon kissed him, and the world came to a stop around them both, creating an enchanted, timeless space for two. Napoleon kissed him slowly, Napoleon's mouth hot, firm yet soft... Illya's lips parted and there was more pleasure and he could, he could feel pleasure, and he was giving pleasure too, he could tell.
Napoleon ended it, then, so he could lift Illya in his arms, carrying him into the bedroom, laying him carefully on the big bed. "There's nothing to you," he said, smiling and undressing him, feeling Illya pull at his own clothes with less skill but just as much enthusiasm. "I remember that, from when you've been hurt and I've carried you out, how weightless you are..." both naked now he came back down, kissing Illya and then kissing him some more, loving the feel of their lips together, the soft sounds they made as they came together, as they parted, and rejoined...
"I'm—I'm afraid of that. You know."
"Then we won't do that—tonight."
"There'll be more after tonight?"
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow..." he kissed Illya's throat.
"You seem pretty confident about this," Illya whispered in his ear. "For someone who's never done it. With a man, I mean."
"Well—I actually gave that a lot of thought. And do you know what I decided?"
"No." It seemed so funny to him that Napoleon had thought it all through, but of course he would, he was not a man to do anything on impulse. "What?"
"I decided that most of it" he caressed Illya, hand sliding down his hip, up the inside of his thigh, across his stomach, "couldn't possibly be that different from what women like. As for the rest of it" caressing Illya intimately now, making him gasp, and clutch at Napoleon, opening his legs to give him easier access, "it couldn't be that different from what I like. Am I right?" He caressed Illya again.
"Yes. Yes you are. You—you called me your love."
"Does that mean you love me?"
"Yes, Illya, my partner and my sweetheart, I love you. I love you with my whole heart."
"I love you too, Napoleon." That aroused Napoleon so fiercely that he sealed his mouth over Illya's and there was more touching, and Napoleon found that he was right, it wasn't that different, not that different at all, and they both liked it just fine.
Later, wrapped up together, Illya put his mouth to Napoleon's ear again. "Do you want me to leave?"
"Leave? Are you out of your mind?" Napoleon squeezed him hard, and Illya squeezed back. "Why would you even ask that?"
"You always want them to leave."
"You" Napoleon kissed him "are not them. You are you and I—I am very much in love with you, Illya. I know you remember what I've told you about that."
"You said—you never ever say those words."
"Because if you said them it would mean you meant them and that would be—that would be forever."
"Yes. Is that all right with you?"
"I'm in love with you, too, Napoleon. And yes, it's fine."
"Good." They kissed again, long and slow and sweet, and then fell asleep together for the first time in what would be the rest of their lives.
Napoleon woke first that next morning, and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, filled with happiness. He was happier than he ever remembered being. His heart was light, he felt almost giddy in a way he hadn't known since—since ever. From his boyhood he had been serious; focused and driven, always moving ahead to the next goal, the next accomplishment. He had looked in contemptuous wonder at his schoolmates at play—he had never played. Even the sports at which he excelled were only means to an end—several ends. Means to a strong healthy body, means to acceptance at the schools of his choice, means to meeting and mingling with the kinds of people he needed to know in order to pursue his chosen career.
As a man, he was the same. Only in women, in their pursuit and then in their arms did he find release—temporary release—from that self imposed pressure. Then he met Illya. With Illya he was at peace—even when everything around them was danger and chaos, Illya centred him. And later, after the fieldwork ended, time spent with Illya warmed Napoleon and pleased him, allowed him to unwind his tight spirit and just—be.
For a long time he thought he had found the perfect balance—women for sexual release, Illya for everything else, and although it had been Coleman who had jolted him out of that complacence, looking back Napoleon could see that it really hadn't been entirely satisfactory for quite some time. Typical, though, that it had taken someone else's interest to make him fully aware of his own. The bare idea of losing Illya to another man had made it instantly imperative to stake his own claim in an unequivocal way.
And he had—first with his actions, then with his words. Why had he said them? He hadn't needed to—Illya had already given himself, he could have had Illya without speaking of love, could have had Illya whenever he wanted, for as long as he wanted, could even have told Illya he didn't want him seeing Jess Coleman or anyone else and Illya would have agreed, while leaving himself free—free to do as he pleased. He could have had it all, slept with as many women as he wanted and Illya too, if he hadn't made that commitment—but then would he be as happy as he was now? He didn't think so.
And his words were the truth anyway. He was in love with Illya, with his partner, with another man, and he had never done anything half-heartedly in his life. He wanted to possess Illya as completely as one human being could possess another and that meant it would have to be mutual, he giving himself too. And the more he thought about it now the happier he was; so he would not look back at his abandoned freedom, at all those women, as Illya put it with that mischievous smile that Napoleon loved; would not look back at his solitary splendour because he knew already that Illya wasn't leaving, not today or ever. He didn't want Illya living anywhere but right here, under his—their—roof. His life—their lives—was about to change—had already changed, radically and for the better.
Napoleon rolled over, propped himself up on one elbow, and looked at his partner. And had to smile at Illya, lying there in his bed; hair no less bright than the sunlight touching it, spread out in a wild mass of tangles and waves on the pillow, tumbled across his bare shoulders and arms. Illya was so thin he barely mounded the covers, so light that he barely dented the mattress. Napoleon gathered him carefully into his arms and Illya, who had always looked so cool and untouchable, was really so warm, and so yielding... Illya turned towards Napoleon in his sleep and smiled.
Warmth—surrounding him and filling him—he opened his eyes, blinked, remembered last night and everything else and moved closer into the security of Napoleon's embrace. "If you want to take back anything you said," he whispered into the crook of Napoleon's neck, feeling he should say it, should offer... "you can."
"Do you want me to?"
"No—oh, no. But I don't want you to feel... stuck, or trapped or anything."
"Illya—am I in the habit of speaking or acting impulsively, without due consideration?"
"I told you I was in love with you." But he was using the past tense and Illya, suddenly terrified, clutched at him.
"And now? Are you now? Still?"
"Oh." He was still clinging to Napoleon, but not in terror, in joy, and... how sweet it was, bare flesh against bare flesh, warm to warm, soft to soft and now Napoleon's hands were beginning to move, skimming across Illya's back, through his hair, each separate touch a wonder, their cumulative effect making him ache. He moaned and pressed even closer.
"You know," Napoleon whispered in his ear, delighted at Illya's responsiveness, at his own power, "you just moved in. You know that, right?"
"And I'm not having any dogs here. Whether they like me or not. I hate to break it to you."
"That's fine. I'm sure Jess will need a morning dog walker fairly often. Anything else I need to know?"
"You sleep here, with me, when I'm home. Your room is only for when I'm out of town."
"And... and all your women?"
"No women. Only you."
"Really?" Illya looked at him. "You don't have to do that."
"How would it make you feel, if I just went on the way I've been?" Wouldn't Illya care?
"It would kill me," Illya whispered, tightening his hold. "I couldn't bear it. I take it back. Don't. Don't ever... ever touch anyone else like this again. Please."
"I won't. Illya—we are going to be so happy."
"I'm happy right now."
"Me too. Did you like what we did last night?"
"Yes I did. And can I tell you something else?"
"You can tell me anything at all."
"Remember I said I was afraid of—of that?"
"I was wrong. Because it's you. And I'm not afraid of you at all."
"You have good cause to be afraid."
And that was what he had wanted, wasn't it, to cleanse Illya's mind and heart of all the suffering of the past, to leave nothing there but him... Napoleon led Illya there, then, led him to that, and Illya following as he always did and oh, Illya's hands set him on fire, and Illya's kisses were honey sweet. Napoleon wrapped Illya's hair around his hands but carefully, carefully, and he made love to Illya carefully, powerfully. When Illya cried out, legs wrapped around Napoleon's waist, arms wrapped around Napoleon's back, sucking on Napoleon's tongue like someone dying of thirst, body clinging to Napoleon's body, when Illya cried out Napoleon cried out too before collapsing on top of him, heavy, sweaty, exhausted and Illya still clung to him, still kissed him, and then they both slept again.
Napoleon woke early Monday morning to find Illya already dressed, and brushing his hair in front of the mirror. "Come here," he said, smiling. "Let me do that." Illya smiled too, came over to the bed, sat down. He handed Napoleon the brush and sighed with contentment as Napoleon began. Napoleon had brushed his women's hair before, of course, knew full well its effect on the recipient, but he had never in his life handled hair as soft and thick as Illya's. "Your hair is very beautiful," he said, softly, and Illya smiled again. "Thank you. You do that very well."
"Well, thank you."
"I suppose you've had lots of practice."
"Never like this." He put his lips against the back of Illya's head. "Nothing has ever been anything like this."
"For me too, Napoleon. Nothing... mmm." Illya drew his knees up and rested his forehead on them, closing his eyes, letting the motion of Napoleon's hands relax him, making him feel so good... he sighed again.
"Why are you up so early?"
"Well—I was thinking. Aren't we going to have to enter—aren't I going to have to enter my new address in my records? If you really want me to move in with you?"
"Yes—among other things. I need to enter you in my records as a cohabitant. And there are other things we can do."
"We should list one another as our primary contacts. That way if one of us is injured, the other would be notified. Also if one of us should happen to be hospitalized, the other would be treated as next of kin. That could be important. If life or death decisions needed to be made, we would be the ones to make them. That will be a fairly unequivocal statement. Since we can't be married." He put the brush down, gathered Illya into an embrace.
Illya tucked his face into the crook of Napoleon's shoulder and relaxed. It seemed the lonely struggle which had been the substance of his life thus far was ended, and he had reached safe haven. He inhaled deeply, basking in Napoleon's scent, Napoleon's warmth, Napoleon's strength. Napoleon was continuing. "Unless you want to travel to Hawaii."
"No, thank you. Unless you do."
"No. What does any of this have to do with you being up at the crack of dawn?"
"How long after we make those changes do you think the word will spread?"
"By lunch time it will be all over the building. Not to the great surprise of many, I might add."
"No, I know. But I was thinking—I don't want Jess to find out that way. It doesn't seem fair. I was going to go over there before work and tell him myself."
"Yes. Will I see you today?"
"If not, I'll see you tonight." He was smiling and Illya smiled too.
"That's right. I do have to move sometime, Napoleon. I have an apartment full of things."
"All you need do is indicate what you want brought here and I'll have someone take care of it. But not tonight. Tonight—tonight I want us to be here. Together."
"I could do that first, then come here."
"I'm afraid to let you out of my sight," Napoleon said, and held him close. "I'm afraid this is all some kind of misunderstanding and I'll turn around and you'll be gone. I was going to drive you in to work today, and drive you home after, just to be sure you show up."
"I'll show up," Illya whispered. He kissed Napoleon's neck. "I promise. I love you, Napoleon. This is the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me in my whole life. Maybe we can go to my apartment together."
"You don't mind waiting until Saturday?"
"All right." He was still holding on and Illya shifted position.
"Napoleon? If I want to catch Jess before he leaves for work I have to go now."
"Of course." Napoleon forced himself to let go. "I'll see you later."
Illya buzzed Jess's apartment and Jess's voice came over the intercom, sounding impatient. "Yes? Who the hell is it at five thirty in the morning?"
"I'm sorry," Illya said contritely. "It's me. I can come back later."
"No—Illya, I'm sorry. Come on up." The buzzer sounded and Illya stepped into the lobby, went to the elevator in back. He hauled on the gate to open it, then pushed it closed and sent it on up. When the big back doors opened he was seized in a pair of strong arms, and pulled into an embrace. He stiffened, and was instantly released. "I'm sorry," Jess said again. He pushed the hair off his forehead with his fingers. "I thought—I hoped you'd changed your mind."
"No. I'm sorry too, Jess. I didn't think—I just wanted to tell you something. Something personal, that I didn't want you to find out from the grapevine." He patted Samson, who had come to investigate this early morning visitor. Satisfied, Samson licked Illya's hand and went back to bed.
"It'll be on the grapevine? You're not leaving, are you? Transferring somewhere else? Can I come? Surely they'll need a security guard, wherever it is."
"No. It's nothing like that." Illya couldn't keep the joy from his face, despite knowing that it would bring Jess pain. "Napoleon asked me to move in with him."
"Solo did?" Jess stared at him. "Why on earth? Surely he doesn't need to split the rent—he's rich as Midas, isn't he?"
"Well, I don't..."
"He loves me," Illya said. "He wants us to be together. He... I'm sorry, Jess." Jess looked stricken. "It's really because of you."
"Of course it is. He thought you might possibly find a life that didn't include him and he had to jump right in, didn't he. Typical."
Illya's face closed. "Jess—I can't listen to that. And don't tell me this was serious for you. I know better. Once I'd said yes—if I'd said yes—it would have been fun for a while and then you'd be off to the next romance. And we might not have been friends anymore. This is better."
"Better for him. I suppose it's too much to hope for that you haven't already been together?"
"Been together? I don't know what you mean. I just told you I'm moving in."
"Has he screwed you? Is that clear enough?"
Illya looked at Jess. It seemed he should be offended, but Jess sounded really hurt. "Yes," he answered finally. "He's screwed me. Is that what you wanted to know?" Jess sat down.
"Not really," he said and his voice was dull. "No, not really."
"He asked me how things were going with you and I told him—I told him you kissed me."
"Great. Where am I posted to now, Death Valley?"
"No." Illya sat down too. "I told him you asked me first. Then I told him what you said—what you asked—you know, about someone's touch, and someone's hot breath..."
"I sure have a big mouth," Jess grumbled. "You told him that?"
"And I suppose one thing led to another."
"Yes it did." Illya thought about it and couldn't keep from smiling. Seeing it, Jess groaned.
"And you liked it."
"You didn't tap him on the shoulder to get him to stop."
"No. Jess—I just thought you had a right to know. There was never any chance for us. I thought I made that clear the other night."
"You did." He thought of Illya, cold and unresponsive in his arms, only waiting for it to be done. "Yes."
"But you liked it with Solo."
"That's rather personal, don't you think?"
"Yes. But it would give me peace of mind to know you weren't just yielding to Solo about sex the way you do about everything else."
"Oh." Illya thought about it. Jess knew nothing of him and Napoleon, that was clear. But he was a good friend. "I want you to have peace of mind. Yes. I liked it." He blushed crimson, thinking of how much he had liked it. "Yes I did."
"Well, now that you know how good it can be, can I hold out any hope that when you and Solo are through, you'll let me try again?"
"Through? We won't be through. This is—this is forever."
"What on earth makes you think that?"
"He said so. He loves me. I told you."
"He told you it was forever."
"Won't it be crowded over there, or will he hang a coat hanger on the door
"When he's got someone else in bed with him."
"You're getting personal again."
"I want you to be happy. I don't think you'll be happy sharing him with every good looking woman who comes down the pike."
"No. I wouldn't. But it won't be like that. He even offered to take me to Hawaii if I wanted to be married but I said no. That seems extreme, doesn't it?"
"Solo said he'd be faithful."
"And of course you will be."
"And you believe him?"
"Jess—Napoleon has never lied to me. He never would lie to me. Please don't be like this. Because I won't be able to see you anymore if you keep saying things about Napoleon. Even if we weren't—together, I wouldn't be able to listen to you say things about him. He's my partner. He's my best friend. And now..."
"Does he know you're here?"
"Yes. Of course."
"He doesn't mind?"
"You still don't understand. Napoleon knows I wouldn't lie to him either. That's always been between us. That's what made us so good together all those years. That's what kept us alive."
Jess sighed. He looked into Illya's face, so close to his. It was a bitter pill. He had had his heart set—far more than he'd realized until the chance had been snatched away—on being the man who could melt the notoriously beautiful Illya Kuryakin's equally notorious frigidity. For Jess the outcome had never been in doubt. His seduction had been slow, and deliberate, and he'd thought he was winning. Illya smiled at him, and danced with him; laughed at his jokes and blushed charmingly at his compliments. Even the failure of that first kiss hadn't seemed a real defeat—that Illya had let it happen at all had been encouraging. And now to have Napoleon Solo step in and—it was a bitter pill. But Jess swallowed it because Illya's friendship was worth having, because he liked Illya and Illya looked so damn happy. Jess sighed again. "I wish you all the joy you deserve," he said finally, and dropped a kiss on Illya's forehead. Illya smiled at him, relieved.
"Thank you. And I wish you joy, too. Wherever you may find it." He held out a hand. "Friends?"
Jess closed his big hand around Illya's slim one. "Friends," he agreed. "And I do appreciate you coming to tell me yourself."
"Well. I thought you were entitled. Are we going bowling Tuesday night?"
"If you still want to."
"Of course I do." Illya rose. "I have to go to work."
Jess got up, walked him to the door. "See you later," he said, and watched Illya get on the elevator, haul the creaky gate over, and disappear from view.
At work, Illya went to the lab before reporting to Personnel. He had a sneaking feeling that he was breaking with procedure in so doing, but he wanted to tell George Piper, too, before the word got around. George was a friend, a good friend, and he would probably refuse to believe the rumours once he heard them. Wanting to spare him embarrassment, Illya tapped at his office door and was admitted at once.
"You're in early," George said, putting aside his keyboard and smiling at Illya. He was a big man, in his late fifties, with iron grey hair and eyes to match, set in a deep network of wrinkles. He looked harsh, and stern, and he could be both, but Illya had seen through that at once. It was as if the abused child deep inside him had a homing signal, drawing him without error to men—always men, never women, to whom he had no response at all—who were kind, even if the kindness was well concealed under a crusty exterior as was the case with George. And George, who at heart was soft, who couldn't pass a stray kitten without picking it up and carrying it home, responded to Illya in the same way. George watched over him, brought him his meals when Illya forgot to eat, sent him home when he thought Illya looked tired, rubbed his back and shoulders when long hours bent over a microscope or computer screen made them sore, and in general provided the sort of paternal affection Illya had never had, had never missed, and now was sure he couldn't live without.
"George," Illya said, pulling up a chair and leaning his arms on George's desk. "I have something so wonderful to tell you you're not going to believe it. I can't believe it."
"Please don't tell me it's Jess Coleman. Illya, even you must see he's a fly by night low budget Casanova who has already been through half the eligible men in this Section plus a few I would never have thought were eligible. I know he's a nice guy, and a friend of yours, but he won't be good for you and that's the truth. Besides... no?" Illya was shaking his head. "Well, good. But it is someone."
"How can you tell
"I don't know." George studied Illya's face, flushed with happiness, eyes alight despite the violet shadows under them that spoke of a broken night's sleep. "You just have that look."
"I'm moving in with him. Oh, George—I'm so happy I can't tell you. I never thought—I never imagined—well, you know."
Illya had confided in George two years ago, on one of their camping trips. Lying in their sleeping bags, side by side under the stars, Illya had talked about his childhood in a way he never had to anyone except Napoleon. George's response had been different, but the same, too. He had roared and pounded his fist on the ground, and demanded to know where he could find Illya's uncle so he could make him take on someone his own size, where Napoleon had just held Illya in silence, but underneath it had been the same. Something about that was enormously reassuring.
"Are you happy, Illya?" Foolish question—Illya was fairly incandescent with happiness, but he had to ask it anyway. "Oh, yes. I'm so happy. We're putting it on our records today, that's why I wanted to tell you first."
"And I appreciate it, Illya. I wish you all the best, you know that."
"Yes. I do know. I have to go to Personnel now, but I'll meet you in Lab A at nine o'clock for that experimental run through."
George was in Napoleon's front office before Illya had reached Personnel. "No, I don't have an appointment," he growled at Napoleon's secretary. "Tell him it's George Piper. Tell him to see me now."
"I'll check, sir." She activated the intercom. "Mr. Solo? Mr. George Piper is here. He says he needs to see you now." Napoleon's rich chuckle came clearly through the speaker.
"Send him in, Joyce. If my eight thirty conference call comes through while we're talking, put them on hold please." "Yes sir."
Napoleon rose and extended his hand. "Mr. Piper. I gather Illya's talked to you." George ignored the hand.
"You better not be jerking him around, Solo. I've never seen him like this. If you do anything to take that look off his face I'll personally come down here and kick you in the butt so hard you'll be spitting my shoelaces out for a week."
"Won't you sit down?"
"No I won't sit down. Are you serious about this?"
"Mr. Piper—are you asking me my intentions?"
"Yeah. Yeah, that's right. Damn right. What are your intentions?"
"I'm glad he has you," Napoleon said, and sat back down himself. After a moment Piper reluctantly did so also. "I assure you, George—may I call you George? Since in some way I don't really understand we're related now?"
"You think this is funny?"
"No. I assure you, George. I take this very seriously. My intentions with regard to Illya are entirely honourable. If I could marry him, give him the protection of my name and my status, I would. I can't. But I will give him as much security as I can without that. I have moved him into my apartment and put his name on the deed. I have put his name on all my bank accounts. I have put his name on my health insurance, and listed him as my primary contact—as I am now his. If money and influence and power are any protection at all, Illya will have all the protection he needs. You have my word."
"You know he's been hurt. Badly."
"Yes. He's told me."
"He told you all of it?"
"He's told me about his uncle, if that's what you mean. But Illya is a remarkably resilient human being. Nothing his uncle did to him diminished in any way his capacity to love and be loved, to trust and to establish firm relationships. You know that yourself."
"Yes. But I'm not planning on fucking him up the ass. You better be good to him, Solo. That's all I came in here to say. You better—be good to him."
"Or you'll kick my butt." Napoleon was amused. "Despite the fact that you have no combat training, and I could kill you with one hand."
"Be hard to do with my foot up your keister."
Napoleon laughed, and after a moment George smiled a little. "I think it behoves us to get along, George. I think that's what Illya will want."
"I suppose so. And we can, so long as he keeps smiling."
"Done." They stood up, shook hands formally across Napoleon's desk and George left. Napoleon stood for a moment, still smiling to himself, then pushed the button that activated his conference call.
They met at lunch. Napoleon stopped by Illya's office, and found him deep in a computer program. "Hey," he said and Illya looked up.
"Is it that late already?"
"It's later. It's two thirty. Let's go upstairs and grab a bite."
"All right." They walked together through the hall. "That didn't take long," Illya said after a group of three women actually stopped in their tracks, turning around to stare.
"And it won't take long to die out, either." Napoleon smiled down at Illya as they entered the elevator. "Have a good morning?"
"Yes." He looked at Napoleon shyly from under his eyelashes. "It feels funny being together here after... you know."
"I do know. What do you want to do after work?" Napoleon waited while they were served in the cafeteria, and then sat down across from each other at one of the little tables. People were looking, and whispering, but Illya seemed oblivious so Napoleon strove to appear the same way.
"I can't say that here." Illya blushed. "It's bad enough the way they're looking."
"Does it bother you?" So Illya wasn't oblivious either. "I can try to put a stop to it if you want."
"No. That would just make it worse. You're right, it will die down soon. Napoleon—you still want to do this, right?"
"Yes. Why? Don't you?"
"You know I do. It just seems so—so unlikely, here."
"We'll get used to it."
"I come home with you every night, and we leave together every morning and—I'm so happy, Napoleon."
"So am I. I wish we hadn't taken separate cars today. I'd like you to ride home with me. I don't like not seeing you even for a minute."
"Me neither. We can do that tomorrow."
"Yes. And we'll stop and have dinner on the way home. Together."
"Aren't we having dinner together tonight?"
"Yes we are. Do you want to go out? We can meet somewhere."
"No. I want to go straight home. I want... well." Illya blushed some more. "You know."
"Yes, I do. What about dinner?"
"I don't know. Whatever you want."
"No, whatever you want."
"I want to do what you want."
"Hmm. We're not getting anywhere. Finish this sentence. The thing I want most of all to eat tonight is..."
"Yes. From Romano's."
"Fine. I'll order it as soon as I get home. That way I know you'll come straight there."
"I would anyway, Napoleon. I can't wait."
"Good. I have to go. I have a meeting. Come right home, Illya. Seriously. I'll be wanting you
"I want you right now."
"One of these days you can come to my office, and I'll tell Joyce to hold my calls and not let anyone in, and we'll make love right there."
"Now how am I going to get any work done? All I'll be thinking about is—that."
"No you won't. You'll get lost in some test tube or other and I won't see you until midnight."
"I wish we didn't have to come to work at all. I wish we could have stayed home all day, like we did yesterday."
"Hmm. I'll look at my schedule and see if I can take a couple of days off. We could take a trip. Just the two of us."
"That sounds wonderful, Napoleon. Is it Hawaii after all?"
Napoleon laughed, and the few people who hadn't been looking at them did. It was even more shocking to hear Napoleon Solo laugh out loud in public than it was to hear that he and Illya Kuryakin had finally taken the big step. "No, not unless you want to."
"No. Not really. But they have nice beaches."
"How about a private island off the coast of Florida?"
"I'll let you know when. Is there anything in your schedule I should be aware of while I'm planning the dates?"
"Not really. I have that seminar in a month—oh, Napoleon!" Illya looked dismayed. "I'll have to go away for five days! Five whole days!"
"I'll come with you."
"Will you really?"
"If you like."
"Oh, yes. If you're sure you really want to."
"We're spending a lot of energy playing this polite little game. I'll lay it right on the table. I want to spend every minute with you that I possibly can, for the rest of my life."
"Me too, Napoleon. Me too."
Illya came into the lobby that night, and smiled hesitantly at the doorman. He knew them all, of course, having spent enough time here for that, but now it was different. The doorman smiled back.
"Welcome to the building, Mr. Kuryakin. I hope you'll be very comfortable here."
"Here's your key. Mr. Solo asked me to give it to you. So we won't have to announce you anymore."
"Oh." Illya took the lobby key. "Thank you. Good night."
"Good night, Mr. Kuryakin. Better hurry—the pizza arrived about ten minutes ago. It's not as good cold."
Illya laughed. "You're right. I will." He smiled to himself all the way up in the elevator, and was still smiling when he opened the door. Napoleon was there to receive him.
"I would have opened it for you," he said into Illya's hair as he kicked the door closed, "but I wanted to hear your key in the lock."
"I wanted to put it there."
"Illya—we are going to be so happy."
"I know." He kissed Napoleon's cheek, having to reach to do so, and Napoleon turned his head so their lips met. They kissed for a long time, and when they were finished the pizza was cold but it reheated just fine and neither minded the wait.
They lay naked together, the pizza box at the foot of the bed. Napoleon was very seriously discoursing on the nutritional elements of the meal. "Since I might as well get used to eating out of this cardboard box," he said, smiling, and held a piece, folded lengthwise, for Illya to bite. It was hard, with Illya lying flat on his back, but he managed, only getting a little sauce on his chin. Napoleon put the slice down and licked the sauce off. Illya shivered, and whispered something in Russian. Napoleon drew back.
"I adore you," Illya said, right into his ear, having propped himself up to do so. "I love you with everything that is in me. I give myself to you entirely."
"And I give myself to you." As he spoke, Napoleon pushed Illya back down on the bed and began decorating. He applied mushrooms to Illya's nipples and a long string of melted cheese leading down to his cupped navel, which he then filled with spinach. Illya was trying not to laugh.
"Are you crazy?"
"You know," Napoleon laid a path of tomato sauce from Illya's navel to the very edge of those golden curls, brushing them accidentally on purpose as he moved to put the pizza in the box. "I think I just might be. Crazy about you. Crazy in love." He nipped a mushroom off Illya's nipple, licked the nipple clean. "Don't try to get up."
"I won't." He couldn't, Napoleon's mouth was making him weak. All he could do was breathe deeply, and reach for Napoleon, who pushed his hands back down.
"Lie still, my Russian pizza pie," he instructed, and Illya started to laugh. He stopped abruptly when Napoleon took the second mushroom between his teeth, then sucked the cheese in. By the time Napoleon was licking his way down the trail of tomato sauce Illya was beyond speech, beyond laughter, beyond anything except gasping, and moaning, and, later, crying out, calling Napoleon's name over and over until the end, when their mouths came together and their bodies came together and they were one.