One More for the Road
Illya came to wakefulness with an indistinct sense that something was wrong. He opened his eyes a slit and saw only various shades of darkness—dark bedclothes, dark curtains, dim shapes of furniture lurking in the gloom like silent sentries watching over him. Brain cloudy with sleep, he turned over, reached out automatically, and encountered nothing except wrinkled sheets. At that, his eyes opened fully and he frowned. He looked toward the bathroom door and saw no light creeping from beneath it. He listened carefully, hardly breathing, and heard—something. A barely audible musical murmur that rose and fell in cadence.
He relaxed. After all, if there was any place in the world where he was safe, it was here.
Yawning, he slid out of bed and pulled on his pajama bottoms. It was warm in the apartment, but he wasn't about to parade around naked anywhere outside of the bedroom. Napoleon certainly wouldn't object, but Napoleon's lack of self-consciousness about such things was a trait which Illya did not share. He often marveled at the irony of his libertine partner having been reared in a strictly Catholic household and sent to strictly Catholic schools. Napoleon had once laughingly regaled him with the story of how Sister Mary Theresa had whacked his eleven-year-old hands black and blue with a ruler, just for having his top shirt button undone.
He padded to the bedroom door, opened it, and cocked his head. It was music he heard, a faint faraway tinkling of piano keys. Illya sighed and started down the hallway in the dark.
When he reached the living room, he paused in the doorway. None of the lamps were on, but the lights of Manhattan poured through the big picture window, brightening the room enough for him to see Napoleon standing with a drink in his hand, gazing out over the city. On the other side of the room the hi-fi droned in a minor key and an incomparable voice sang of love and loss and the loneliness at the heart of the night.
Illya moved silently to Napoleon's side and stood close to him, brushing their shoulders together lightly. The silk robe Napoleon wore was the one Illya had given him the previous Christmas. Through the gossamer-fine material he could feel his partner's heat. Napoleon didn't even turn his head. But then, he had always said the two of them shared a kind of telepathy.
"I didn't mean to wake you," Napoleon said softly, and sipped from his drink.
"Have you been up long?" Illya asked, following the direction of Napoleon's eyes. The apartment really did have a spectacular view, and tonight it was enhanced by the sight of a quarter moon dangling picturesquely between the skyscrapers.
Napoleon shrugged. "I couldn't sleep at all. I lay there for as long as I could stand it, then I came in here and put on a record."
Illya glanced back at the hi-fi. An album sleeve was propped against it. It was too dark to make out the title, but he knew what it said: In the Wee Small Hours.
"How many copies of that have you owned?"
"Three or four." Napoleon let out his breath in a kind of laugh. "They keep wearing out."
They stood in silence for a while, listening to the midnight blue of the music.
"He's never done better than that, you know," Napoleon remarked at length. "And he never will."
Illya didn't reply. He preferred the early Tommy Dorsey recordings, but he had learned not to say so unless he had the time and the inclination for an extended debate.
Finally, Napoleon turned away from the window and walked to the couch with Illya following. He sank down, sighing, and lowered his shot glass to the coffee table. Illya slid a coaster under it before it could touch the shiny wood. Napoleon hated rings on tables.
He sat, his left leg touching Napoleon's right, and waited.
"Are you all packed?" Napoleon asked at last.
Illya smiled. Napoleon knew he never waited until the last minute to pack. Besides, his battered suitcase was standing in plain view by the front door.
Napoleon glanced over at him and let his mouth twist ruefully. "Ask a silly question..."
He picked up the empty glass again and rolled it between his palms. "What time is your flight? I can't remember."
"Eight-fifteen. I will leave for the airport at about six-thirty." And I will spend all the intervening time wishing I were still here in our bed with you, Illya thought. But he didn't say it.
Napoleon shook his head. "I really am sorry I woke you. You need to get some sleep." He set the glass back down.
Illya pressed slightly closer. Napoleon was so warm.
"I can sleep on the plane," he said.
Napoleon's grin was a quick white flash in the dimness. "You could sleep under mortar fire with a live hand grenade for a pillow."
Illya let the corners of his eyes crinkle. "I have," he replied solemnly.
He felt Napoleon's shoulders shake for a moment and was immediately lighter himself. Getting his partner to laugh, even silently, could be half the battle on these occasions.
The album was nearing the end of its first side. There was a pause, and Napoleon seemed to tense. The last track started, a slow tune called "When Your Lover Has Gone." Pure desolation haunted the velvety voice that floated from the speakers. To his horror, Illya felt a hard knot begin to form in his throat.
Napoleon rose abruptly and strode across the room to the machine, where he unceremoniously lifted the needle and flipped the record over. Then he returned to the couch and settled himself again next to Illya.
Napoleon cleared his throat. "That one's, ah, scratched," he explained.
Illya nodded quickly and swallowed.
The next song wasn't much more cheerful. Napoleon sat with his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor. Illya leaned against him deliberately, comfortingly, but the little flicker of humor they had shared was gone.
"Napoleon," Illya said at last, "this is ridiculous. I'm sure you will miss me, but we both know I am unlikely to be away for more than three or four weeks, at the most." He wished his voice didn't sound so hollow.
Napoleon said nothing.
"The mission should not be difficult. The political situation in San Cristobal is no more unstable than that of most Latin American nations"—he ignored Napoleon's short, bitter laugh—"and once the revolutionary junta is safely in power and the obligatory round of executions is over—"
"Illya," Napoleon interrupted with a sigh, "hush."
Illya subsided. He always felt so inadequate when trying to sound optimistic. It was unnatural.
After an interval of silence he said, "It won't be like this for much longer."
Napoleon responded with a scarcely perceptible nod.
"I will be thirty-nine next month. After that, it will be only a year until I retire from the field."
"But in the meantime," Napoleon muttered, "you'll be alone out there."
"Dammit, you should have a new partner! You should have backup—"
"I do have backup. When I need it, I call for it."
"That's not the same thing, and you know it. It's not the same as..." He broke off and looked away.
"It could never be the same as it was. Even if I did have a new partner." Illya took a moment to steady his voice. "Polya, you must stop this. You are retired from fieldwork and you should be enjoying it. But it has been months now and we keep repeating this conversation every time I have to leave. You must stop worrying and concentrate on your own duties. Mr. Waverly will be gone soon, as you know." A sudden thought struck him. "You are not concerned about succeeding him, are you?"
Napoleon shook his head impatiently. "No, of course not. It's just..."
"You miss the field?"
"No." He stared straight ahead. "I just keep thinking about what could happen to you. When you're gone I dream about it."
Illya tried to laugh. "You know I have second sight. Don't you think I would know if the Grim Reaper were waiting for me around the next corner?"
Napoleon didn't react to his attempt at levity. Illya sighed.
"You never used to talk about these things." And I wish you wouldn't now, he thought fervently.
Napoleon's voice was quiet. "I never used to feel so useless."
The cushions shifted suddenly as Napoleon stood. "You're right, this is ridiculous. Let's go to bed."
Illya's hand shot out and jerked him back down. The springs complained as Napoleon's weight landed on them.
"Look at me," Illya snapped.
Napoleon didn't, so Illya put a hand on each side of his face and turned it toward him forcibly.
"You are not useless. You are simply doing what you have to do, just as I am doing what I have to do. But if you do not stop worrying about me—open your eyes!"
Napoleon's eyes flew open.
"If you do not stop worrying about me, you will become useless, and so will I. You must let me do my job without forcing me to agonize over the state of your emotional health while I'm doing it." He took a breath. "It is hard enough as it is."
Napoleon turned his head and kissed Illya's palm. "I know it is," he whispered.
Illya ran a thumb lightly over Napoleon's cheekbone.
They settled back against the cushions and Napoleon draped an arm over Illya's bare shoulders. Illya closed his eyes and listened to the music.
"I'll try," Napoleon said after a long silence. "Like you said, it's only another year. But you have to promise me—"
Illya nodded. "I will be careful."
"And if you need help, don't just call for backup. Call me."
"Napoleon, you're not—"
"—over the hill yet, I assure you. And the soon-to-be head of U.N.C.L.E. North America can do whatever he damn well pleases. Call me, or I swear, I'll keep you locked in a closet for the next year."
Illya fought down a smile. "I'll call you," he agreed, mentally resolving that he would do no such thing. Now that Napoleon was out of the field, he'd be damned if he'd let him walk right back into the line of fire again.
Satisfied, Napoleon sighed and let his head rest against Illya's. After a moment, he raised it and said, "We should go to bed. It's almost two o'clock."
"Yes," Illya said in a whisper. "It's time to go to bed." His hand dropped to Napoleon's thigh where the silk robe was parted and caressed the firm flesh.
He heard Napoleon catch his breath. "That's nice," Napoleon murmured. He let Illya pull him to his feet. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked softly as Illya kissed his neck. "You have to be up awfully early."
"I'm sure this is a good idea." Illya slipped both hands inside the robe and ran them insinuatingly over Napoleon's ass, smiling at the appreciative growl that issued from his partner's throat.
"You have many uses, you see, Polya," he said. "This"—he took Napoleon's mouth in a fierce kiss—"is one of the best." He gasped as Napoleon ducked his head and swiped gently at a nipple with his tongue.
Impatiently, Illya took Napoleon's arm and steered him toward the bedroom. "And as I said, I can sleep on the plane."
Behind them the record wound slowly down, pouring out its exquisitely broken heart to an empty room.