It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Napoleon Solo was working. He didn't plan to take off; planned to come in Thursday and Friday and probably the weekend too. It was a golden opportunity—without any scheduled meetings or teleconferences he could really get his teeth into his work. There was no one at home to complain—he was obligation free. There would be some woman or other, of course, for his evenings but otherwise—these four days were just days to him. His intercom beeped. "Yes?"
"Mr. Solo?" It was Janet, his personal secretary.
"May I have a moment?"
"Yes." He deactivated his door lock and raised his eyebrows as Janet entered, with her two assistants, Teri and Ruth, close behind her. All looked nervous. Napoleon tapped a pencil on his desk. "Well?"
"Mr. Solo—" Janet was clearly screwing up her courage. Napoleon made no move to help her. "We—we understand you plan to work this holiday."
"I wondered—that is, we wondered—if you would consider taking off."
"Because if you work, we have to," Teri blurted out and Janet nodded.
"Otherwise it accumulates," she explained. "And we'll never catch up. And we want to be with our families." The other women nodded agreement, looking appealingly at the handsome man with the dark brown hair and brown eyes sitting behind his desk. Napoleon frowned.
"You can come in Friday and catch up from Thursday. Then Monday you can work on what I did over the weekend. That's..."
"Mr. Solo," Janet's voice wavered. Napoleon Solo's frown was a formidable sight. "My married daughter lives eight hours away. I can't drive all the way there for one day. I want to spend the holiday with her and my grandchildren. We worked on Labor Day, we worked over the Fourth of July—enough is enough."
"Then you can start catching up on Monday."
They protested no more, but left. Outside his office they stood in a tight little cluster. Teri was wiping her eyes. "I told you," Ruth said and she was near tears too. "He doesn't care—my father will have to stay in the nursing home. He can't be left alone and if I for one wait till Monday I'll miss the deadline for those grant applications. Just because Mr. Solo doesn't have anyone he cares about... why are you smiling?" She was addressing Janet.
"Because I have an idea," Janet said. "We're going over Mr. Solo's head."
Ruth sniffled. "To Davenport? He won't back us against Mr. Solo."
"No," Janet said. "Come on. I'll explain on the way."
Napoleon had returned to work, dismissing the incident from his mind, but within an hour there was another buzz at his door. He activated the speaker. "Yes?"
"Illya. Come in." He unlocked the door and Illya Kuryakin walked in. Napoleon found himself smiling at his former field partner, and Illya smiled back. "Hi. What's up?"
"Well—I'm not really comfortable with this, Napoleon, so I'm just coming right out with it."
"Janet, Ruth and Teri came to me."
"They want me to ask you to take off over Thanksgiving."
"Why on earth would they drag you into it? And I've made myself perfectly plain on that subject." His voice had hardened, his face matched it. "They had no business involving you."
Illya sat down, tucking one leg under him. "They dragged me in because they think I won't get scared off when you use that tone and that expression. But I don't know, Napoleon." He feigned fear. "You do look rather alarming."
"Cut it out." But he was smiling again, he couldn't help it. "Am I wrong?"
"You really think so?"
"Yes. They're right—they have to work when you do to keep up and it's not nice to make them work over Thanksgiving. Besides Janet visiting her daughter there's Teri who is a single parent and needs to take care of her children because school is closed, and Ruth has an elderly father in a nursing home she wants to see. She wants to bring him home for Thanksgiving."
"I have family, too. You don't see me complaining."
"Because you don't go see Jillian and Charles even when you are off. And you can make that sort of decision for yourself. It's not really fair to make it for other people."
"What about you? You're working, aren't you?"
"No." Illya made a face. "George threatened me with bodily harm if I kept the labs open."
Napoleon scowled. "He what?"
"Joking, Napoleon. I'm joking and so was he."
"Threatening to assault you is not a joke."
"Actually he said he'd turn me over his knee." Illya laughed and it was such an infectious sound Napoleon laughed too. "And you know he doesn't mean that."
"He'd better not. It's not as if he's your father."
"Actually it is as if he's my father." Napoleon snorted. "Take off, Napoleon. It won't kill you and think how happy you'll make them. Not to mention how my stock will go up if you listen to me."
"What makes them think I'll listen to you?"
"I don't know." But Illya did know, and Napoleon did too. If Napoleon Solo had a soft spot for anyone on earth, it was for this thin young man with the long blond ponytail who had worked beside him in the most dangerous of assignments, had sat with him during the dullest, most routine stakeouts, who had shared hotel rooms and apartments and prisons with him—all during a time that seemed remote now. Illya was his best friend as well as his partner, and his blue eyes were smiling at Napoleon now. "They must think there's some type of favoritism involved."
"They have a point. You are my favorite. But that's supposed to be a secret."
"You're mine too, Napoleon. And that's not a secret at all."
"Well if I'm taking four days off" he couldn't believe it as he said it "then I have a lot of work to get done. You go on and stop taking up my valuable time."
"Yes sir." Illya rose. "Thank you."
"Hmph." But he was smiling and then, as Illya reached the door he stood up unexpectedly. "Illya."
"I suppose you're having Thanksgiving dinner with Piper again?"
"No. That's why I was going to work. George and Mae are going to Mae's sister's house."
"Surely Piper would bring you along."
"He would. But Mae doesn't really like me very much."
"Nonsense. How could she not like you?" He hadn't realized how that would sound. Illya smiled at him, but his eyes were sad.
"Thank you. But she doesn't. She—I suppose she resents the way George feels about me. It was just the two of them for years, and then all of a sudden there I was. Anyway, I wasn't invited."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Work at home, I suppose." He shrugged. "What else is there?"
And although it was just what he had been thinking, hearing it from Illya hurt him, somehow. "There's more to life than work," he said, rather lamely and Illya clutched at his chest, fell back against the wall.
"No you didn't. More to life than work? Napoleon Solo. Are you feeling well?"
"Knock it off." He was smiling again. "Well—since we're both—" he groped for a word. "Free," he said finally, "why don't we eat together? I'll take you out. I'll take you to Richard's. They do a traditional Thanksgiving spread."
"Really?" Illya's eyes had lit, the sadness gone, and he seemed very young, suddenly. "You—you want to be with me?"
"Yes." He did. "In fact you're the only person I do want to be with."
"Oh." He looked at his feet, and Napoleon peered at him curiously.
"Look at you. You're blushing like..." he couldn't think of a comparison. "Well, you're blushing."
"Shut up. What time should I meet you?"
"In fact let me pick you up. It'll be nearly impossible to find a taxi then and since you won't get a car..."
"Napoleon—I have no place to park a car. I'd have to leave it so far from my apartment it makes no sense. And I can take the subway."
"No. I'd pick up the most casual" he stumbled at using the word date. "I mean—some woman I hardly know and care less about. Why not you?"
"No reason. Thank you."
"No problem. And pack a bag. We'll go back to my place after dinner, have some brandy, maybe watch a movie. You can spend the night. I'll make up the sofa bed for you."
"Mmm. Right in front of the fireplace?"
"Sure. I'll even cook breakfast. What do you say?"
"Yes. Please. I mean—thank you. I mean" he was crimson again. But Napoleon didn't comment on it this time, just regarded him thoughtfully.
"They were right, you know," he said finally.
"Who was right? About what?"
"No one else would have the nerve to come in here and tell me I was wrong to my face."
"They don't know you the way I do," Illya said seriously. "You're a fair man. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to do your job. You just didn't understand how they felt."
"And your stock?"
"Through the roof, I suppose." His smile was mischievous and Napoleon found himself drawn to cross the room, put both hands on those slim shoulders. Illya had to tip his head back to look into his face. "What?"
"Nothing. I'm—I'm pleased with the way this worked out."
Napoleon cleared his throat, moved back. "Illya."
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow." What long eyelashes Illya had. How had he never noticed? Long—and a deep gold against his fair skin.
"I am too."
"I'll pick you up at five thirty."
"All right." He turned and left, and Napoleon stood there, staring at the closed door for a long time before going back to his desk and immersing himself in the work he'd have to complete before he could leave.
He was early. It surprised him, when he realized it, when he knocked at the door of Illya's fourth floor walk up in Greenwich Village and looked at his watch and saw it was only four forty-five. He was always punctual, never varying by so much as five minutes. But here he was, a full three quarters of an hour early. And why wasn't Illya answering?
Napoleon used his key, bypassed the security system and slipped inside. The sound of the shower answered his question. Illya was still getting ready. He rearmed the system, locked the door behind him and stood, feeling rather foolish. Why was he so early? Because he'd thought about this all day and—be truthful—through the preceding night. All of a sudden the syrupy Thanksgiving commercials on every channel no longer irritated. The news broadcasts of the giant balloons being made ready for the parade actually made him smile instead of prompting him to change channels in disgust. He felt included in the general seasonal warmth. He too was seeing someone he cared about.
Although Napoleon did have a brother, and a sister, he had long since abandoned the family festivities. They had never been close growing up and the pretense annoyed him. But Illya—Illya lived inside his heart, and had from the very beginning.
Illya was the finest person he knew—with an integrity and commitment to doing what was right that was absolute. His intellectual abilities would have made him welcome in any private research institute—paying him far more than his government berth—but Illya believed in UNCLE, believed in what he did, and how disarmingly he had blushed under Napoleon's gaze, how still he had become at Napoleon's touch, as if fearing the least movement would end it. This was certainly an inappropriate train of thought, yet he felt not the slightest inclination to stop. Illya, who presented a cool impenetrable facade to the world was terribly vulnerable to him, he had always known it—that was why he never let Illya see that other side of him, the harsh inflexible power that made everyone else fear him. He would never turn that on Illya because—it would hurt him, and he would no more hurt Illya than he would—the shower stopped. There was silence while Illya presumably toweled off and Napoleon took the moment to look around the apartment.
It was relatively spacious, for a studio—with an alcove for Illya's work station and a tiny kitchen nook. The furnishings were minimal—an armchair, a small television set with VCR, an table with two chairs—one of which, piled high with books, bore silent testimony to Illya's solitary meals. A couch, a coffee table. An expensive looking and elaborate sound system—stacks of record albums, racks of CDs. Books were everywhere, overflowing their shelves, stacked under the tables—they were the only things that were out of place. Everything else was impeccably tidy—the narrow twin bed neatly made. There was only one picture on the wall—he himself, and Illya—caught unaware at some event or other. It was clearly a formal event, because both were in evening wear. Napoleon walked over to look at it.
Illya was talking, face intent and Napoleon was watching him, smiling slightly, expression gentler than he was used to seeing himself. If this was how he looked on Illya no wonder Janet, Teri and Ruth had known... where had Illya gotten it? And how poignant it was, by itself on the wall. Napoleon had always been aware of just how alone Illya was. He had been an orphan all his life, his mother dying in childbirth, his father having passed away even before that. There was no other family living—no grandparents on either side, his father an only child, his mother's sole sibling, an older brother, also dead. Illya had grown up in a Soviet era orphanage and although he rarely mentioned it Napoleon's impression was of a bleak place where food was scarce and affection nonexistent.
Napoleon frowned as he studied the picture. Was he really the only source of—no, wait, there was another photograph. This was also of Illya—and George Piper. It was a snapshot, framed and standing on Illya's desk which was why he'd missed it before. It was an office party, clearly—the chemistry lab in the background, Piper wearing a party hat that said 'Fifty—over the hill'. He had an arm draped over Illya's shoulders and both were laughing into the camera. So Illya kept this—this evidence of the two people who cared about him, whom he cared about—kept them where he would see them every day.
The bathroom door opened and, startled, Napoleon spun about. Illya stood in the doorway, equally startled. "Oh—Napoleon. You're early." He seemed unconcerned with his nudity—he and Napoleon had been naked together too many times to count with neither thinking anything of it. But tonight—Napoleon couldn't tear his eyes away although he knew he should, for courtesy's sake. Illya's hair was loose, and dry—which was good, it was bitterly cold out—and it hung down past his shoulders, pale gold in the light coming from behind him. He stood there, one hand resting on the doorknob and smiled at Napoleon. "I didn't expect you yet."
"I know." He came closer. "I hope you don't mind, that I came on in."
"No, of course not." Napoleon took another step, then the final one that brought them together. He reached out, hands shaking and that was something he hadn't expected. But he was shaking as he touched Illya's hair, gathered it into his grip, then pushed it very gently back behind slim shoulders. Slid his hands down Illya's bare arms. Drew him closer. Wrapped both arms around him and held on. And Illya melted against him, laid his head on Napoleon's shoulder. He didn't reach for him, didn't try to keep him there, just stood within the embrace.
Napoleon held Illya, held him, naked as he was, close to his heart. He felt—he didn't even have words for what he felt. Illya seemed infinitely precious to him, and he cradled him gently, not squeezing, feeling he couldn't hold him tenderly enough, couldn't treat him with sufficient care... he swallowed, smelling the sweet scent of Illya's hair, feeling it against his arms, tickling his wrist where his shirt cuff ended.
"Why on earth do you keep it so long?" he'd asked Illya on their first meeting and Illya had stiffened, face closing in a way Napoleon was going to become very familiar with.
"Why do you sleep with all those women?" he'd retorted, revealing, perhaps without meaning to, that he had made inquiries about this man who was to be his partner. Napoleon, nonplused, had shrugged.
"Because I like to," he'd said. "And it has nothing to do with my work and therefore nothing to do with you." Impudence, he'd thought, but then had been bowled over by Illya's smile.
"And that's why I keep my hair so long," he'd said and Napoleon had grinned, to his own surprise, and dropped it.
Now he lifted one hand, smoothed that hair, pressed his lips to it. He was aroused and didn't know when—or why—it had happened. Even as he thought about that Illya stirred.
"Yes?" His hand traveled down Illya's hair, was caressing the small of his back now, and Illya arched against him.
"What are you doing?"
He was delighted by Illya's reaction. You'd respond to me, he thought—you'd be helpless not to. How different it was, holding Illya. Napoleon's women were generally tall—statuesque, full figured, a ripe armful, he often teased them. Whereas Illya was small—his head fitting precisely onto Napoleon's shoulder, his breath warm against Napoleon's neck. He was slim, and hard—no soft swellings anywhere, not pressed against Napoleon's chest nor would there be under his hand if he moved it lower. But his skin—"How can your skin be so soft?" he whispered, running his fingers up Illya's side, feeling him shiver. "How can that be?"
"I don't know. Napoleon—"
"I can't do this"
"Do what?" He stroked Illya's back.
"Be one of your—your affairs. A night—two—maybe a week, or more—or less. I can't."
"Of course not." Napoleon was silent. What had he been thinking? Of course he couldn't treat Illya that way—and when it was over? Where would their friendship be then? His arms tightened once more, involuntarily, then he forced himself to let go, to step back. Illya regarded him anxiously and, wanting to allay that anxiety, Napoleon smiled at him. "I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me. I just—I care about you very much, and I needed to show it."
"Thank you. I care about you, too."
"How lovely you are," Napoleon said, wanting to say it.
He looked at Napoleon shyly. "You are, too."
"Well" he shook his hair forward, hiding his face. "Maybe not that word. Um, I should get dressed."
"All right." He turned away, to give Illya privacy, although what he wanted to do was brush his hair back again, kiss his cheek, his forehead, his lips... "ah, where did you get this picture?"
Illya pulled a black turtleneck over his head. "That was the cruise we took when we were tailing Baumann. Remember?"
"Yes." He smiled. It had turned out to be a lighthearted assignment because Baumann was one of their own, UNCLE had wanted to know who he was meeting on this cruise and it had turned out to be nothing more sinister than an extramarital affair.
"They had pictures spread out on the buffet table every morning and I saw that one and, well, I ordered it."
"I like it."
"Me too." He tied his shoes, slipped into a black dinner jacket. "I'm ready."
"Good. Let's go."
At the restaurant it was as though the unsettling episode at Illya's apartment had never happened. They ate turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes—Napoleon tried to coax Illya into taking some yams but he turned his nose up at them—"Any food they have to cover with marshmallows to get you to eat must be awful, Napoleon"—they drank excellent champagne and laughed and talked and when the last piece of pumpkin pie was gone Napoleon leaned forward, across the table. He lifted his glass in a toast.
"Happy Thanksgiving," he said and Illya smiled, touched his own glass to Napoleon's and they both drank.
"Happy Thanksgiving to you too."
"I'm thankful for your friendship," Napoleon said, not caring how corny it sounded.
"I'm thankful for yours, too."
"Look—I hope what happened before doesn't make this awkward—but I still want you to come over tonight. I promise not to accost you again."
"I know. And I'd love to."
"You didn't bring a bag."
"I forgot it."
"That's all right. I have a spare toothbrush and pajamas."
"Want to take a walk first, before we get in the car?"
"Yes. I'm a little sleepy."
"That's the turkey. You'll get over it as soon as that air hits you."
It was cold out, very cold, with a wind that seemed to probe into every corner of Napoleon's greatcoat. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, wishing he had worn gloves. At the same time he noticed that Illya had only a thin windbreaker over his dinner jacket, that he had neither gloves nor pockets and had tucked his hands into his sleeves. "Why are you wearing that thing?" Napoleon asked. He felt the material. "It isn't even lined."
"What do you mean, why did I wear it? It's cold."
"Don't you have a warmer coat?"
Illya shrugged. "I don't need one." But his huddled posture belied his words and Napoleon scowled ferociously. Illya blinked at him.
"Why do you look like that?"
"Nothing." It was none of his business, none of his damn business and he'd put his arm around Illya's shoulders to pull him against his own warmth if he could, would give Illya his own coat if he thought for one minute he'd accept it. "Just because no one took care of you when you were little doesn't excuse you from taking care of yourself now," he said sharply. "You're supposed to be an adult."
"That was harsh, Napoleon. I'm not complaining, am I? So leave me alone." He quickened his pace until Napoleon had to jog to catch up with him.
"Slow down," he complained. "My dinner hasn't settled yet."
"You're the one who said you were cold. I'm hurrying back to the car."
"I thought we were going to walk."
"I'm through walking."
"Hey." He caught Illya's shoulder, turned him around. "What's going on?"
Illya refused to look at him, settling instead on an indiscriminate spot around his kneecaps. "Nothing." Napoleon caught his chin between thumb and forefinger, wanting to see his eyes, and, perversely Illya lowered them. Reminded again of how fragile Illya's feelings were where he was concerned, Napoleon bit his lip.
"Don't be offended with me," he said softly. "I was concerned. It was a clumsy way to show it. I'm sorry."
"I'm not offended."
"Look at me and tell me that."
He jerked his chin free instead. Napoleon brushed his thumb against Illya's cheek. "Forgive me. Please?"
"It hurt me. You saying that. I don't share my life with anyone and you—you just clobbered me with it."
"I'm sorry." Only the truth could hurt so much, Napoleon thought. He tried again to meet Illya's eyes but they remained stubbornly veiled. He looked at the brightly lit store window behind him. Mannequins stood in the spotlight, wearing winter gear—a ski outfit, a fur trimmed robe, a cape... "Do you mind if we step inside LaPierre's for a moment? I forgot I have a gift I need to pick up."
"LaPierre's?" Illya turned to look. "Can I even afford to breathe the air in there?"
He laughed. "I'll put the air on my charge card. Come on—it won't take long."
Inside the store, Illya watched Napoleon confer with the salesman and wondered who was the recipient of what would no doubt be an expensive gift. Some woman? Or a business acquaintance? He turned away, inspected a clearance table full of gloves. His hands were cold—he picked up a pair, looked at the ticket and dropped them hastily. Even at seventy-five percent off it was more than his weekly salary. But maybe—maybe Napoleon was right. He should take better care of himself. Why should he be cold all winter? He didn't have to shop here—he could go to Macy's and get a winter coat—he deserved it, didn't he? No, came the small inner voice, no. Any child so utterly unloved and unwanted deserved nothing. Angrily, Illya shook his head. He wasn't that child anymore. But he wanted to leave here, wanted to go back to having fun, wanted .. "Illya."
"Yes?" He turned around and saw Napoleon frowning at the very cape they had seen in the window. It was a rich navy blue and looked inviting—Illya reached out to touch it.
"That's nice, Napoleon." It was. It was a dense pile and the lining was so soft he wanted to rub his face on it. He peeked at the label—cashmere. Lined with cashmere And not on clearance either, he was sure. He looked surreptitiously for the ticket but couldn't see it.
"Yes. Would you mind trying it on? Just so I can get an idea how it hangs?"
"All right." Napoleon settled it around his shoulders, checked the length—right at Illya's calves. It felt wonderful—lightweight and warm at the same time—comforting, as if it were Napoleon's caring enveloping him. He pushed aside the fanciful notion and stood still as Napoleon walked around him. From behind Napoleon pushed up the hood, and when he came back into view Illya smiled at him from within its depths. It too was lined with cashmere, and a brass fastener closed it snugly against his throat. "Gloves," Napoleon said, and the salesman produced a pair. Napoleon held them out to Illya. "Do you mind?"
"No." He pulled them on and never wanted to take them off again. Napoleon surveyed the effect.
"A scarf," he said finally and one was instantly produced, more cashmere, a muted blend of greys and blues. Napoleon wrapped it around Illya's neck and nodded with satisfaction. "That's fine. I'll take it. Put it on my account."
"The scarf and gloves too?" the salesman asked, beaming when Napoleon nodded again. "Do you wish it gift wrapped? Delivered?" Illya began peeling off the gloves.
"No," Napoleon said, and smiled into Illya's eyes. "He'll wear it out."
Illya's jaw dropped. Again he hunted for the price tag but it was nowhere to be seen. He looked at Napoleon, began to refuse, then saw the way Napoleon was regarding him, the obvious pleasure he took in his surprise and realized how very much Napoleon wanted to do this for him. And Napoleon could certainly afford it. But still... "I can't," he protested feebly and Napoleon shook his head.
"You must. Please?"
And it would be cruel to say no. He could see that in Napoleon's face. Napoleon didn't know how to open his heart so he had opened his wallet, opened both and how could Illya wound him now? He smiled, and saw his smile reflected in those dark eyes. "Thank you," he said simply and Napoleon winked at him, accepted his receipt and his credit card back and they walked out of the store, leaving the salesman to gloat over his commission in privacy.
Outside, the wind was howling and the temperature had plunged. People hurried past them, eyes streaming, noses red. Illya pulled his scarf up to cover his face and was as warm as could be desired. The cloak surrounded him with luxury and... and love. "Thank you," he said again and Napoleon rather awkwardly patted his back.
"You're welcome. Any time." His voice was rough, but Illya reached out to give Napoleon's arm a pat of his own. They walked on side by side, each at peace in the company of the other.
Back in Napoleon's apartment the atmosphere seemed different, somehow—charged. Illya hung up his new cloak, put the gloves carefully in the pocket, wrapped the scarf around the coat hanger. He would never be cold again. And every time he wore it he would think of this night, and of Napoleon—he stood at the closet door for a long time, thinking. Ever since he had told Napoleon no, earlier, he had felt—bereft. As if something infinitely precious had been offered to him and he had turned it away because he was afraid of losing it. But if he never accepted it—wasn't that as bad as losing it? Worse. He could be in Napoleon's arms right now, could be experiencing—well, he didn't really know what he might experience, but it would be wonderful, he was sure. He was unaware how long he had stood there until Napoleon spoke, voice right at his ear.
"Illya? Everything all right?"
"Yes." He turned, smiled at Napoleon, offering him another glass of champagne. He accepted it, took a sip, set it down. "Napoleon?" He was nervous now, but resolved to carry this through.
"Remember before, when I told you I couldn't—that I couldn't be one of your affairs?"
"Well—" he took a deep breath, and plunged. "I was wrong. I mean, it was a mistake, saying that. I mean..." he stumbled, flushed, stole a look at Napoleon from under his eyelashes. "I mean I can. Um, I want to. I mean—if you still do. If you haven't changed your mind—or stopped wanting to. Or something." What a mess he was making of this. "Help me out here, Napoleon. Or shut me up and send me home."
"Send you home?" Napoleon said, putting his own glass on the lamp table. "No, I don't think so." They were standing so close it would take only one movement from either of them to bring them together again. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. I trust you—not to stop being my friend after. I trust you to" he lifted his eyes to Napoleon's face, feeling warm all over at what he saw there. "I trust you," he finished simply and Napoleon took him in his arms. "And I can't—oh," he whispered, and put his own arms around Napoleon's waist. "I couldn't stop thinking how sweet it was, those few minutes—and how it would be" it was bliss, being in Napoleon's embrace. He wondered when Napoleon would start stroking him again, the way he had before, how long it would be before Napoleon took off his clothes... he shivered.
"So what you're saying," Napoleon's voice deepened, "is that despite all your best intentions, in spite of all common sense, you can't resist me?" He was almost painfully aroused. Illya knew him so well, and Illya's hands were setting him on fire. He eased the band off Illya's ponytail, sliding it down slowly, making it a sensual act, teasing, finally pulling it free, tossing it aside, putting both hands in Illya's hair.
"I can tell you something else you'll like," Illya whispered, breath warm against his neck again, that lithe body fitting perfectly in his arms.
Illya stood on his toes so he could put his mouth to Napoleon's ear, and whispered something in Russian. It was both unintelligible and incredibly erotic. He began trying to ease Illya's pants off those narrow hips. Desire was flaming through his body, making his hands shake, affecting his vision, affecting his coordination and he pulled at Illya's clothes, dragged the jacket off his shoulders, the shirt over his head, hearing Illya's sharp intake of breath and then Illya was undressing him, too, fingers deft, no fumbling or awkwardness and within minutes they were naked, clinging to each other, swaying drunkenly as they made their way to bed. They fell together onto the mattress, and that magical something that had always been between them was operative here, too—each seeming to know without words what the other needed, finding pleasure in answering that need. Illya was lovelier than ever in the throes of passion, Napoleon thought, looking down into his face, nudging his thighs apart with his own knee, Illya urging him on with soft outcries and broken exclamations, silenced when Napoleon's mouth closed over his. Napoleon took him, driving himself home in Illya's sweet, yielding flesh, flying, both flying, higher and higher then a dizzying swoop downward—a bird of prey, Napoleon thought, folding his wings around his partner so as not to lose him on the way, diving then pulling up just above the earth, floating there, suspended together, joined body and soul and then drifting down, down, the mattress soft under them, mouths still sealed together. Illya shivered and Napoleon pulled the covers up, kissing the top of his head, his nose, his cheeks, his chin, his mouth, finally, sweet, sucking kisses and then they were quiet.
Much later Napoleon turned on his side to look at Illya, naked beside him, body open and lax, trusting him. He ran a finger over Illya's lips, and Illya smiled.
"Remember before," Napoleon whispered, "when you asked me what I was doing and I didn't answer you?"
"I didn't know it then, but I do now." Illya's eyes were so soft, and so blue... Napoleon had to kiss them closed, then wait for them to open again.
"I was falling in love." He took Illya's hand, kissed his palm, folded those long fingers to keep the kiss there. "I was falling in love with you."
"Is that what this is?" Illya brought their linked hands to his heart. "This feeling—is that what it is? Love? Am I in love with you?" And is it safe, his eyes asked. Will you end it in a day, or two—a week or more—or less? Or am I home for good? Home—at last?
"Yes," Napoleon said, to the spoken and the unspoken question. "You are in love—I am in love—we are in love with each other. Never leave me again, Illya. I never want to spend another night without you, another day without knowing you are here for me to come home to. Please promise me you'll stay." His need seemed a shameful confession, one he could never have made to anyone else But Illya had a confession of his own.
"I'm terribly selfish, Napoleon," he said, kissing Napoleon's fingers as they caressed his face. "I'm not sharing you. Do you still want me here, knowing that?"
"I want you here. Do you still want me, knowing how obsessively I'll cling to you?"
"Oh, yes." Illya pressed closer, as if to prove it. Napoleon's hands began to move again, and Illya moaned, gave himself up to it. Napoleon took his time, this time, watching Illya closely, monitoring every gasp, every start, every whisper of his name—watched the color come and go in his face, his hands clenching on the sheets, his hips moving. When Napoleon finally settled on top, wrapping Illya's sweat damp hair around his fists Illya rose up to meet him, and the finish was glorious.
The sleep that followed was sweet, the body of one curled around the body of the other, hands clasped and love, Illya thought as consciousness faded, was like a cloak; both enveloped and at peace in its warmth. And both were thankful.