Napoleon sighed as he fastened the second cuff link and surveyed himself critically in the mirror. It was going to be a very long night. He peered closer, checking the perfectly straight part, ran a finger over his closely shaven chin, aware that he was dallying, reluctant to finish and go outside into the hot New York summer night.
He and Illya wouldn't even be inside where the air conditioning could keep everything at a reasonable temperature. They would be outside, mingling in the gardens, ensuring the safety of their assigned partners for the evening. The newspapers had predicted no end to the current heat wave, and the prospect of being out in the muggy night was not appealing.
He sighed and shrugged: it could be worse, he could have drawn one of the scientists for the evening, as Illya had, instead of the scientists' principal assistant. He hoped the conversation would cover something other than research. He'd tried to prepare, had read through the summaries, had even tried to get Illya to describe it in words of less than five syllables, but this was not his forte. Napoleon knew what he excelled at, and wished that the opening party for the symposium could have been held at one of the resorts on the waterside, but instead, the gathering was at one of the large hotels downtown that had its own enclosed garden area. Easier to protect, less open to whatever night breezes there might be.
He brushed at a faultless shoulder, pulled the tuxedo jacket down an unnecessary quarter-inch, adjusted the bowtie a twitch to the left and turned toward the door. He couldn't even commiserate with Illya on the way; his partner had been working on something in the lab and would go directly from HQ. Napoleon palmed his keys and trudged, resplendent, out the door.
Illya stood in the lab and frowned.
The afternoon had not gone well. First, the experiment he'd so carefully set up had inexplicably failed, with no results at all. He had set it up again, trying not to hurry, aware that he was skating close to his time limit, and one of the flasks had exploded, covering everything in the lab with goo and glass bits.
Including the tux hanging on the back of the door.
Illya muttered something pungent. That's what came of being in a hurry to do something he enjoyed—he'd failed to hang up the suit in his locker or office, where it would have been safe. And now it was covered in sparkly goo. He leaned closer over it, intrigued by a color change in the goo, and snatched himself back from temptation. He was already going to be late for the evening's escort duties. Maybe Wardrobe would have an extra tuxedo. Or he could call Napoleon and tell him the tuxedo was out of commission. He sighed at the hopefulness of the thought. Napoleon was already angry about the mess at home. If he didn't report to work in his party clothes, then he'd be in for it later. He glanced at his watch and grimaced. Not much time.
One hour later, he was irritated beyond all measure. Wardrobe had nothing even close to his size. The shops that usually supplied them were already closed and Del Floria had no reserve suits left in his storefront. He was running dead late, his experiment had failed and he couldn't begin to see where it had gone wrong, he couldn't find a tuxedo for love or money and Napoleon wouldn't take any more excuses. Not after the flood in the bathroom yesterday. Just because he needed to write down the idea for the experiment in the first place and had sort of forgotten to turn off the water. And the science project in the refrigerator from the day before. Even though that hadn't been his fault. Well, not really.
This wouldn't be happening if Napoleon hadn't insisted that if he had to dress up, Illya had to dress up. There was really no good reason he had to be there. They just had to keep their eyes on their assigned scientists. Illya really didn't see why he had to go at all and it pushed his irritation the extra inch into unreasonableness.
"Sarah? Please," he said, trying to keep the little smile he had learned to use with the female staff from breaking into a snarl of frustration. "Isn't there anything that we can adapt?"
The Wardrobe mistress grimaced back in commiseration. "We've already been over this, Illya. There's nothing here I can alter to fit you. They're all too big. They'd swim on you. The best I can do is a suit."
"Napoleon will kill me if I show up for a soire in a suit," Illya grumbled, flipping through the racks once more. "He will probably kill me anyway. I am supposed to be there in 15 minutes and there is nothing—" He reached for a back rack and paused. There, right under his hand. "Sarah, what is this?"
She came over. "Illya! you don't want that! Napoleon really would kill you!" Illya started smiling and Sarah groaned. "No! Illya, you wouldn't! I mean—you shouldn't—" Too late. She recognized the evil grin that spread over Illya's features and groaned again.
"But it would solve all the problems!" he told her solemnly. "It is easy to put on, I will look fashionable and I will be very comfortable in this heat." She resisted the blinding smile he turned on her and shook her finger in his face. "I am not responsible for this, Kuryakin! When Napoleon kills you, it's you alone!"
"Do not worry, Sarah," Illya said, the devilish smile still illuminating his face, "I will make sure he knows who to kill. Thank you for the clothes." And he blew her a kiss as he dashed out of the room.
Sarah buried her face in her hands and wondered for the thousandth time whether a transfer to a Hollywood costuming studio would be any easier on her nerves.
An hour later, Napoleon was even more uncomfortable than he'd imagined. The garden had been festooned with hanging lanterns, their dim candles contributing little light and all too much heat in the still, muggy air. His companion's grasp on his arm was wilting his sleeve, and he'd have given a nut to be able to exchange glances with Illya and roll his eyes in boredom and exasperation. But his partner had given him a quick call, explaining that he was late due to a lab accident and would be there shortly.
He'd made the rounds just before the guests arrived, making sure that everyone was at their posts, that all the arrangements were as airtight as possible for a reception held in and out of doors, and then the guests of honor had arrived. He'd welcomed them and handed them off smoothly to their escorting agents, looking around as Dr. Serif came in the door, introducing him to the agent who would be dogging him until Illya showed up. Then his own assignment had entered and he had moved smoothly into the role of escort to the surprisingly young woman who was Dr. Serif's chief assistant.
It was almost a half-hour after that when his pen warbled and he turned away to answer it. "Solo here."
"I am with Dr. Serif now. Sorry I was late." His partner's voice was as calm as ever.
"At least you're here. What have you done with Daniels?"
"I sent him back to you for re-assignment. He could always be part of the roof crew." Napoleon had positioned a team on the roof to preclude a sneak attack from above.
"Good idea. Where are you?"
"Over under the dogwood. We're discussing..." Illya's description was pure gibberish to Napoleon, who cut him off brusquely. "Let me know if anything changes. Out."
He capped the pen and turned back to Emilia. "All in order. Sorry to interrupt."
"Oh, no, that is quite all right." She laughed up at him, a plain woman enjoying herself on the arm of a handsome man, small beads of sweat at her hairline and above her lip. She brushed them away with a casual swipe of her hand. "You are very organized and very calm about all this. Do you do this all the time?"
Napoleon smiled at her. She was flirting with him gently and obviously expecting nothing much in return. He rarely came up against such uninvolved women; this was rather restful after the parry and slash of some of the social piranhas he'd squired lately. "Oh, I only do this part of the time. There's so much more to life than parties." He looked at her quizzically, flirting back.
"I am enjoying it. We do not get to do this much." Her mud-brown eyes twinkled. "Of course, if we did, we would get no work done at all and we would not go to symposia."
"Does your work absorb all your free time then?" Napoleon asked idly.
"Almost all of it," she sighed. "We are so close to a breakthrough. Animal behavior is usually an ignored field, but the work done on penguins has been groundbreaking in its implications for social interaction. We're looking for a way to communicate those instincts to other social milieux. Well," Emilia glanced up at Napoleon and smiled, "we are all working on this in different ways. I study them from an anthropological point of view, Dr. Serif is deep in the biological chemistry angle—each of our team has a different specialty. I won't bore you with it."
"Not at all," he assured her, and was only slightly disconcerted when she giggled, a robust sound.
"You are so polite!" she said. "It is very boring to anyone who isn't passionately involved in it. That's why I wondered why you are guarding us so closely."
"Well, you see, it comes under the heading of controlling behavior," he explained. "There are many people out there who would be very interested in ways to control behavior. Just imagine if you could make many people happy to stay at home and raise children or to work at dead-end jobs without protest."
"But they do that now," she said, puzzled.
"Ah, but they're not happy to do it," he retorted.
"Oh, I see." The mud-brown eyes had lost their twinkle. "That's not what we intend our research for, though."
"But it's a way that someone might misuse it," Napoleon said, and smiled down at her, seeing her swipe at the little beads of sweat reborn along her hairline and lip. He took the handkerchief from his pocket and said in his best big-brotherly tones, "Allow me."
Emilia smiled and turned her face up and allowed him to dab the sweat away. "Oh, that feels nice." Eyes open again, she focused on someone beyond him. "Oh! There's Misha! I saw him once at a conference three years ago. Can we go talk to him?"
"Of course," Napoleon said immediately.
As they made their way through the stifling air in the garden paths, he looked over the assembled partygoers, looking for the dogwood, locating it in a corner, seeing a dim reflection of gold hair, reassured and irritated at the same time. Illya would be in his element, talking science while he did his job flawlessly. But he still wondered what had made him late.
A bead of sweat trickled down his back and Napoleon squirmed uncomfortably and peeked at his watch. Four hours to go.
Another two hours, and Napoleon and his companion had circled the garden several times. She preferred to stay outside, where it was hot but open, to the airless inside, where the overworked ventilation system had simply given up against the hordes of people talking, eating and sweating. Napoleon was checking with his teams frequently. The throng was dense enough to give him nightmares of what could happen if an attack were executed at the height of the party.
And Napoleon had the oddest impression that his partner was avoiding him. A couple of times, as he'd neared the knot of deeply involved debate where the Russian was sticking close to Dr. Serif, he'd seen Illya do a slow fade back toward the tree, where the shadow fell deepest. And Illya had definitely steered the scientist away from the group where Emilia had buried herself.
The closest he'd come to Illya was when he'd been circling toward him from the back, before Dr. Serif's stare over Illya's shoulder had alerted him to Napoleon's approach. Napoleon blinked and frowned. His partner seemed to have mangled the back of his shirt; it stood in a crumpled rim above the dark tuxedo collar. And there was something off about the fit of the jacket... Then Illya moved into deeper shadow and Napoleon was distracted by something Emilia said to him.
Illya was avoiding Napoleon. Deliberately. Although more comfortable than almost anyone else present, he was starting to feel slightly guilty about his behavior. Much as he might tell himself that this babysitting was not necessary and he would have done better to stay in the lab, that he had found the most expeditious solution possible, he had the niggling feeling that Napoleon was not going to see it from the same perspective. The scientists seemed to have noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, there was no graceful way out now. He paid close attention to his surroundings and made sure he stayed out of Napoleon's direct line of sight. Time enough for the inevitable discussion when the night was over.
An hour later, the crowd was finally starting to thin out as the party broke up and departures began. Nothing had happened; the worst incident had been a shouting match between two incensed researchers defending opposite points of view. The temperature in the gardens had increased with the hour and the guests were happy to be bussed back to their hotels in the U.N.C.L.E. cars.
Napoleon excused himself and handed Emilia over to another agent for the short time it took him to check in with all the teams. No one had seen or heard anything. For once, this was an assignment that had worked flawlessly. Slipping the communicator back into the inner pocket of his jacket, feeling the dampness of his shirt against his fingers, Napoleon looked around at the emptying garden, searching out Emilia, hoping she and her companions were ready to go. He was tired, endurance sapped by the muggy heat, and just wanted to get everything squared away so that he could go home and sink in front of the air conditioner, get cool enough so that the thought of Illya lying against him didn't automatically raise the specter of prickly heat.
As a matter of fact, maybe they could both cool off that way: the thought of stripping his partner of the penguin suit and standing with him in the cool water of the shower was very attractive. Napoleon closed his eyes for a moment, seeing it before him: pushing the jacket off the muscular shoulders, easing the wilting collar out from under the bowtie, dropping the damp cotton to the floor. The image of Illya with only the pants and the bowtie, a golden Chippendale dancer, was sudden and powerful and he turned around, scanning the garden, turning away from the only group left, thinking of cold showers and filling out reports, delaying until the wave of arousal broke and retreated somewhat.
Telling himself sternly to keep it in his pants, then grinning at the train of thought that produced, Napoleon strolled up to the last noisily arguing group clustered under the dogwood. "Excuse me, boys and girls," he said cheerily, "it's time for all partygoers to go—" and stumbled in mid-sentence as the group opened at his approach and he finally got a clear look at his partner, who threw him a wary look but didn't break out of his discussion with Dr. Serif and two other scientists. The errant Chippendale image vanished and Napoleon felt himself stiffen in teeth-gritted annoyance.
"—time," he continued, voice flattening a little, "for all partygoers to catch the last pumpkin home." At the changed tone, Illya looked up again, and saw that Napoleon was looking straight at him, his glance colder than an icestorm.
Emilia, Dr. Serif and the rest of the scientists also looked up, startled at the alteration in tone, and Napoleon forced himself back into gentle cajolery. "Cinderella's coach is leaving, my friends. The cars are waiting out front to take you back to your hotel." He offered an arm and a smile to Emilia, and she took it and smiled back, curiously, as the others fell into line behind them, shepherded by Illya in the rear.
"What has made you angry?" she asked, frowning with her eyes through her smile. Napoleon shook his head and patted her hand where it lay, hot and damp, on his sleeve. "Nothing at all," he said in a perfectly even voice, and Illya, at the back of the group, heard it and sighed in exasperation. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. It solved his problem and teased Napoleon back a little for making him waste time on this babysitting exercise. And now it had landed him in even more hot water.
Together he and Napoleon herded the group and their escorting agents into the waiting cars, then checked the grounds and the teams once more before Napoleon gave the all-clear, telling everyone to go home. Then it was their turn to climb into Napoleon's convertible and drive home through the intolerant heat, but Napoleon stood unmoving beside the car door.
Illya paused with his hand on the door handle and saw Napoleon's narrowed glare. Stubbornly, he stayed silent, waiting for the first explosive word, finally admitting to himself that it hadn't been a good idea in the first place, but still resolved to outwait Napoleon, guilt stiffening his spine in anticipation.
But the explosion didn't come. Napoleon just looked at him, running his gaze slowly over the pseudo-tuxedo, taking in every aspect of the long-sleeved cotton t-shirt and light cotton pants imprinted with the tuxedo details, seeing the way the t-shirt knit collar crinkled at the back, not standing high enough for a real tuxedo shirt. "If you don't know by now that proper dress is a requirement in your duties to U.N.C.L.E., I wash my hands of you," he said flatly. "Get in."
They drove home in silence and when Illya would have said something in the elevator, Napoleon just held up his hand without even looking at him. Unlocking the door, resetting the alarms, locking up again, Napoleon stayed silent, and he disappeared into their bedroom and shut the door behind him without a backward glance.
Illya sat down on the sofa, feeling rejected and guilty over the direction that the tease had taken. He supposed he had been—what was it? pulling Napoleon's leg? No, yanking his chain, that was it. And now it had all backfired, and he was out an experiment, a tuxedo, and Napoleon's patience.
And shut out of the only room with air conditioning. This would call for strategy and good tactics.
First, get rid of the annoying object. Duly, he rose to his feet, pulled off the t-shirt, and held it out at arm's length, looking at it carefully. The printing was good, the black areas deeply black, the white areas very white. He shimmied out of the pants, looked them over as well. Whoever had done these had done a good job, there was a stripe of deeper black down each side, although the gradation had been invisible in the dim garden lighting.
Just before dropping them on the floor, he reconsidered and folded each one carefully before placing it on the small table beside the front door. Leaving them on the floor would just irritate Napoleon further, but not returning them to Sarah would get him into trouble with the Wardrobe mistress that he could ill afford. He shucked his shoes and put them away in the front closet for much the same reasons.
He caught a whiff of himself and grimaced. If he smelled and felt like this in his lighter attire, then Napoleon must have been boiling, in several ways. Illya cocked his head, but heard no water running. Maybe he could nip into the shower before Napoleon undressed.
The thought was the deed. He knocked perfunctorily and slipped inside their room, cutting straight across to the bathroom door. Napoleon was sitting on the side of their bed, one elbow propped on his knee, hand supporting his head, fingers massaging one temple.
"I'll just take a shower," Illya said, and closed the bathroom door before Napoleon could say anything.
He'd half hoped that Napoleon would put aside their differences and join him, but the door stayed shut and Illya took a quick shower on his own, keeping the water on cool, gratefully letting it run over the nape of his neck and down his back, feeling himself start to relax. He shut off the taps and started toweling off, turning over in his mind how to approach Napoleon. If only this hadn't been the latest in a series of silly misunderstandings. He supposed—no, he knew—that he would have to apologize for this one.
Illya knotted the towel around his waist and opened the bathroom door, suddenly aware of the silence in the room. He'd expected to hear the hum of the air conditioner, but the room was hot and quiet. Alarmed, he looked toward the bed, where Napoleon was still sitting, head sunk in both hands now, fingers rubbing at his temples.
"Napoleon! Why don't you have the air conditioner on?" A couple of quick steps brought Illya to the machine and he twisted it on full, feeling the initial blast of hot air drop quickly to an icy wind. Then he walked around the bed to Napoleon's side, dropped beside his partner.
Napoleon let his hands fall, but didn't look at Illya directly. Didn't pull away, but didn't shift closer, either. Illya could feel the heat rising off the dark clothes, and concern almost diverted him from what he knew he had to say. Almost, but not quite.
"I am sorry."
Napoleon's head stayed bent, but Illya knew he was listening.
"I am sorry. My experiment in the lab failed and it contaminated the tuxedo—"
"You had your tuxedo in the lab?" Napoleon sounded more tired than angry.
"Yes." Illya skirted the truth slightly. "I wanted to be able to change in a hurry—"
"You mean you wanted every last second with your experiment that you could," Napoleon said drily, and Illya bit his lip in momentary chagrin. He hadn't realized he was that transparent.
"Yes, and I was angry that I had to go to this party anyway. I have better things to do with my time than measure it out in coffee spoons."
"T.S. Eliot," Napoleon identified automatically. "Such as destroy tuxedos? Couldn't you have just gotten another one?"
"There were none in Del Floria's and the shops were already closed. Sarah had nothing she could fix, so when I found this on her racks—"
"Sarah put you up to this?" Napoleon's tone was angry all over again and Illya hastened to shift the blame. He depended too much on Sarah's goodwill to let her carry the onus of what he had chosen to do.
"No, it was not her fault, it was my fault. It seemed to be the answer to everything at the moment—it looked right, I would be outside in dim light, it would be comfortable in the heat, and I would not fail you by not showing up. She tried to dissuade me."
"Good. Sarah has her head screwed on right." Napoleon's voice had lost its animation and his fingers were rubbing at his temples again. Illya could feel the heat coming off him in waves, see the little sweat runnel by his ear. The room was starting to cool slightly but not fast enough to make a difference yet. Illya set his hand on Napoleon's shoulder, startled at the tension under the dark cloth.
"Napoleon, lie down. I have turned on the air conditioner and you need to relax and cool down. I suspect you also have a headache." He pushed a little on the dark shoulder and was surprised when Napoleon let himself be pushed, subsiding onto the bed on his back without a protest. Illya stood up, picked up his partner's legs and laid them straight on the mattress, untying and slipping off the shoes, massaging each foot a little before putting it back down. He unbuttoned the tuxedo jacket, laying it wide, feeling the cooling breeze from the air conditioner start to reach them. "Rest a little before you take off the tuxedo."
"It's a penguin suit," Napoleon mumbled. His eyes were shut. "Very appropriate to this evening."
"Yes, it was," Illya agreed. "Why do you still sound surprised?"
"All the abstracts talked about was behavior control. But Emilia was talking about penguins all evening. How was I to know that penguins were the model for the behavior patterns?" he asked grumpily.
"Reading the abstracts instead of skimming them would help, Napoleon," Illya said mildly and felt his forehead. "You are still warm. I will get you some aspirin." He stood up and walked away into the bathroom. Napoleon heard the water run, the medicine cabinet open and shut, then the bed dipped a little as Illya sat back down. Napoleon pushed himself onto his elbow and accepted the aspirin Illya held out, washed them down with the cold water and rolled the glass on his forehead, appreciating the coolness.
Illya took the glass out of his hand, pushed him gently flat again, and laid a cold washcloth on Napoleon's forehead. Napoleon closed his eyes in appreciation; it felt so good.
"Did you know that there's an Emperor penguin?" he said idly.
"What?" Illya said. He shifted a little on the bed, brought one knee up so he could turn and face Napoleon. He let his cool damp fingers rest on Napoleon's temples, massaging gently, running down the hairline to just above the ears where the muscles were tensed, rubbing them gently, then sliding firmly down to the points of the jaw, rubbing more firmly now. As the muscles slackened under his fingers, he slid them forward to the cleft chin, rubbing with the balls of his thumbs, then up and around Napoleon's mouth, over the cheekbones, till he reached the eye sockets.
Napoleon slid his eyes open a fraction, seeing Illya's serious face bent over his as he concentrated on his task, feeling the concern in every touch, and he smiled to let him know that everything was starting to be all right again.
"Close your eyes, love," Illya said softly, and Napoleon obediently shut his eyes again, letting Illya's fingers smooth the frown between his brows, rub the bone under the eyebrow, ease the tension gathered at the corners of his eyes, run his fingers down both sides of his nose in a soft pull that gathered fatigue and threw it away. It felt so good. Napoleon sighed and let his entire body go slack.
"The male incubates the egg," he said, eyes still closed, Illya's fingers still moving, still soothing. "It holds the egg on its feet under its body. And it doesn't eat till the egg hatches."
"Mm-hmm." Illya shifted a little, ran his hands back down Napoleon's jaw, under his ears, to the back of his head, massaged the strong tendons running up from the shoulder into the base of the skull.
"It has golden-brown eyes. Some penguins have blue eyes."
"Oh?" Illya's tone was incurious, his hands still busy finding all the tense spots in the back of Napoleon's neck.
"Yep. The fairy penguin has blue-gray eyes."
Illya's hands stilled and Napoleon peeked to see his partner staring at him with an unreadable expression. "Did you just call me a fairy, Napoleon?"
Napoleon shut his eyes again hastily. "No, no, I was telling you what Emilia told me."
Illya snorted and his hands started moving again, kneading away the stiffness at the junction of neck and shoulder.
"They're social, live together in hatcheries, manage to recognize each other although they all look alike, are responsible, two-parent families."
Illya's hands stopped again and he had his scientist's voice back. "Penguins do all that?"
"That's what Emilia said."
"And you believe anything a pretty girl tells you."
"She wasn't pretty." Napoleon considered. "No, she wasn't pretty. But she was nice".
"Nice. Napoleon Solo with a nice girl. Will wonders never cease?" The teasing note in his partner's voice made the last of Napoleon's tension melt and he relaxed into his partner's grip, conscious of a barrier removed, a difference resolved, a contretemps forgiven between them.
Illya took hold of Napoleon's bowtie, pulled it gently out of its limp knot. Carefully unthreading it from the collar, he started equally gently to undo the shirt buttons, tugging the shirt apart, slipping Napoleon's arms out one at a time and laying them gently back down on the bed, rolling the very damp undershirt up, working it efficiently out from under him and over his head. He undid the catches on the tuxedo pants and worked his fingers under the waistbands of pants and briefs so Napoleon only had to raise his hips once and Illya pulled them off in a second, followed by the socks in two quick movements.
"Stay there, Napoleon," Illya's voice said. Napoleon simply nodded; he wasn't sure he could move much more than that. He hadn't felt this enervated in a long time. It must have been the heat. Well, the heat and the tension between Illya and himself. Whatever the cause, he was tired now.
"Here, this should help you feel better." A cool washcloth was being rubbed over his chest and neck. Illya ran it over the little hollow between his collarbones, then traced the line of each collarbone back, redipped the cloth and wrung it out, ran it down each arm, and little by little rinsed Napoleon all over, turning him twice so he could reach his back, leaving him feeling clean and cool wherever the cloth passed. Napoleon heard the muted clatter of the bowl as Illya put it on the nightstand, then a cloud of softness enveloped him in a slight friction, and he bonelessly gave himself over to being dried, feeling Illya draw the sheets down as he turned him to one side and the other.
"There are lots of things that penguins do, Napoleon," Illya said softly, still rubbing. "But there's one thing that penguins don't."
Napoleon dragged his eyes open. The release from responsibility, the cool, dry air, the cool, refreshing washcloth, Illya's gentle petting and now the slight, welcome roughness of the towel had removed all the tension of the evening, surrounding him in a total relaxation that left him smiling and drowsy. "What's that? Fly?"
Illya finished rubbing him down, rolled him over till he was on his side, drew the sheets up before he could chill, then turned out the lights and slipped under the sheets himself, spooning up behind Napoleon, draping one arm over him, slipping one leg between his, wiggling in the last few inches to rest completely against him.
"They don't get to take their tuxedos off at the end of the day."
Napoleon chuckled sleepily, and felt Illya smile against his neck. Illya's arm tightened briefly around his chest. "Good night, Napoleon."
"Good night, my love." And Napoleon slid easily down the slope of slumber into peaceful dreams of cool places.