Napoleon Solo was getting married. The news had spread like wildfire through UNCLE's New York headquarters. He had met a woman in London—no, France, on a business trip—no, America on a flying visit to the West Coast. He had courted, wooed and won her in three months—no, a weekend—no, they'd known one another for years. They were tying the knot in New York within the month—no, they were already married—no, they were having a civil ceremony in London next week. The details varied wildly but the core of the news was the same and Illya Kuryakin, hearing it for the first time at a staff meeting, was hard put to it to maintain his composure.
Napoleon was getting married! It struck him like a blow to the chest. Married? Napoleon had met a woman he loved, was going to stand up beside her and make those vows—move her in to his apartment, forsaking all others—forsaking him? Hopes Illya had never even known he'd had were blasted. The pain was so enormous he could barely stand up under it. And he had to—not only stand but smile and make the appropriate remarks, express his surprised pleasure, his wishes for their joy and of course he wished Napoleon joy, of course he did. He did, he ... his cell phone rang. Thankful for the distraction, for the excuse to turn his back on the rest of them and move to a private alcove, he opened the case. "Yes?"
"Please tell me you haven't already heard the news."
Napoleon groaned. "I can't believe it got out so fast. I wanted to tell you myself."
"Thank you." He hadn't even had time to be hurt by the fact that Napoleon hadn't told him personally, had let him hear it with the rest of the office staff as if he were—as if he were no one. "I wish you had." Now why had he said that? He bit his tongue. "I mean—thank you for calling."
"I only now found out that the clerk at the marriage license bureau knew Jana from Communications. When did you hear?"
"Just now. It's all the talk at the staff meeting. So you're not already married?"
"No—of course not. I'm coming back to New York for the ceremony. I want you to meet her. She's" here he paused. "Perfect for me," he finished because Laura was, she was perfect for him and for his lifestyle and his career.
"Well. I'm glad for you." He was, he was glad for Napoleon, he wanted Napoleon to be happy. "You must be very much in love."
"Illya—you know how I feel about that. That has nothing to do with it. It was time, and she's very suitable. We get along—we have many interests in common, it's—suitable."
"Oh." Did happiness lie that way? What did he know about it? "Well, good."
"We're holding the ceremony at the Wintergate Hotel in three weeks. I want you to be my best man."
"What?" Napoleon laughed a little. "Our connection must be faulty. I said, I want you for my best man, to stand up with me—who else, Illya?"
"Your brother." Napoleon was asking too much of him. He cleared his throat. "Your brother, Charles," he repeated. "That would be much more—um, suitable." Already he hated that word "He's your only brother—it will be expected. He'll expect it."
"Charles will understand. You are my best friend, Illya—my partner through thick and thin. Of course I want you beside me on the most important day of my life."
And he couldn't say no to Napoleon again, he couldn't—but he wouldn't do this either. He tapped on his phone case. "Napoleon? We're breaking up. I can't hear you anymore."
"I'm coming back to New York tomorrow." Napoleon raised his voice. "We'll talk about it then."
"What? I'm going to hang up now, Napoleon—I can't tell what you're saying." He closed the phone, slipped it into his pocket and turned around to find the entire room full of his staff looking at him expectantly. "I don't know when they met, and they're getting married here in New York in three weeks," he reported dutifully and the buzz of conversation started up again. Only George Piper, his assistant and one of his closest friends excepting Napoleon—always excepting Napoleon—was looking at him, and Piper's expression was sympathetic. Illya flushed, seeing it. George knew. Illya had never confided in him but George knew how he felt about Napoleon. In another moment George was at his side.
"Illya? You okay?"
"Yes. But I want to leave now." He looked up into George's face, his kind worried face and forced a smile. "Can you cover for me?"
"Sure. Want company later?"
"No. Thank you. I'm just—it was such a surprise."
"Solo should have told you himself instead of letting you hear it like this." George scowled.
"He wanted to. That's why he called. He didn't think it would get out so fast."
George was silent. He was torn between his religious beliefs, which told him that marriage between a man and a woman was the only acceptable way, and not wanting to see Illya unhappy. "I'm sorry," he said finally, and Illya shook his head.
"Why? There's nothing to be sorry about. I'm—I'm glad for him." He was, he was, he was glad for Napoleon. "I wish him nothing but the best." And that was true too. He met George's concerned look defiantly, and George sighed.
"I know you do. Still—maybe you shouldn't be alone tonight."
"I need to be. This —" he gestured at the people settling down at the table "is only the beginning. I'll be back tomorrow."
"When's he coming into town?"
"Tomorrow night. He—he wants me to be his best man. I can't do that."
"No. But it makes sense that he'd ask you."
"He has Charles. He needs to ask him."
"Is he going to accept that?"
"He'll have to. Surely—surely he'll have more important things on his mind right now."
"Like his bride."
"Yes." Illya swallowed. "Like her." Napoleon's bride. His suitable bride. Did she know, that Napoleon wasn't in love with her? She must. Napoleon would have been honest, in his proposal. How had Napoleon proposed? Was there a ring? Had he gone down on one knee, like in the romantic movies he scorned? Surely he had kissed her—looked deeply into her eyes, and kissed her ... George poked him.
"You'll have to do something about that look on your face before he gets here," he said gruffly, and Illya lifted wide blue eyes to him. The raw pain there hurt George, too.
"Yes." He wanted to put an arm around those thin shoulders, to hug him hard. "I'm afraid so." Illya wouldn't like being touched in public, he knew, so he cleared his throat and backed up.
"That's why I need to be alone." He wanted to go into George's embrace, to hide his agony in George's arms, bury his face that was showing too much on George's broad chest but of course he couldn't, not here and not now, so he straightened his back. "Thank you for taking over this meeting for me."
"Any time. I'll say you got an urgent page."
"I'll see you tomorrow."
"Want to come over our place tomorrow night after work? Mae's making lasagna."
"Yes," Illya said promptly. It would be good to have plans, to be able to turn down whatever arrangement Napoleon had made for him to meet—Laura. He forced himself to say her name. Laura. "Yes, please." And in the privacy of George and Mae's house on Staten Island maybe he could afford the luxury of comfort, of hiding for a little while inside the stout barricade of George's love for him—George Piper, the closest thing to a father he'd ever known. George, who understood. "I'll be there at six."
"Good deal." George watched Illya walk away, and shook his head. He supposed this day had had to come, but he hated to see it.
In his apartment Illya collapsed onto the sofa and buried his face in a cushion. Napoleon was getting married. How could he bear it? How could he go through the upcoming three weeks of congratulations and laughter and parties and ... he moaned. He'd have to. He'd have to paste a smile on his face and make pleasant small talk with—with Laura, and Napoleon, have to hear the tales of how they met, how they courted, how they—not fell in love, because 'You know how I feel about that' Napoleon had said and Illya did know.
"It's all a delusion," Napoleon had said one night as they sat up late talking and drinking old wine. 'All this nonsense about one person completing another—no one completes you, Illya. There's only you in this whole wide world and that has to be enough. Anything else is childish fear of the dark, that's all, and the idea of true love just a nightlight. I'll have to marry, someday—my position requires it."
"You don't have to."
"There's no rule about it but a single man past a certain age is suspect, you know that. He's either unstable, or that pathetic thing, an aging Casanova—or gay. The big promotions go to solidly married men."
"That's not right."
"That's as may be. I'm not wasting my energy debating it. When I approach that age I'll look for the right woman—well connected, pleasant to be with, attractive, intelligent, with a good sense of humor—and we'll tie the knot. Until then—I plan to enjoy myself as much as I can."
"I'm not going to do that."
"Well, you're in science, Illya. Expectations are different. You can pull off the role of the solitary bachelor living for his work." He reached out, tugged lightly at Illya's ponytail, amused. "Don't worry. She'll like you. They all do." That was true. Women liked Illya—older women, young women—Illya could have his pick any time.
"I'm sure I'll like her too." He was. Napoleon had impeccable taste. But he had to ask. "Is it so very important—to be suitable?"
"Oh." And why was he disappointed? He'd always known there was no chance—had never held out hopes, but Napoleon was talking about the distant future, and right here and now Napoleon was sitting close beside him on the sofa, refilling his wine glass and smiling at him. Illya had resolutely closed his mind to the future Napoleon saw for himself and smiled back. "Thank you," he said for the wine and Napoleon flicked his nose with the tip of one finger.
"You're welcome. Want to spend the night?"
"Yes, please." So he had changed into the pajamas he always kept there, and he and Napoleon had stayed up till three talking about work, and mutual friends, and world events, and office gossip and then Illya had gone down the hall to Napoleon's big guest bedroom. When he slept he dreamed, and in his dreams they hadn't retired to separate rooms. Napoleon had brought him into his own room as a matter of course and taken him into his arms, kissed him, drawn him down onto the bed, caressing him and whispering words of love. When Illya awoke the next morning to his solitary bed, the disappointment was almost more than he could bear But the smell of frying bacon and coffee had reached him where he lay there so he jumped up, pulled on a robe and joined Napoleon at the breakfast table where they laughed and joked and ate and it was just wonderful.
Illya was fighting tears now, to his disgust. He wouldn't cry, he wouldn't—talk about pathetic. And he wouldn't be pathetic. He would—he would carry this off with dignity and pride, and no one would ever know that his heart was broken. Because he was in love with Napoleon. Had been in love with Napoleon since the very beginning. Had listened to Napoleon's talk of the uselessness of love and—and loved him. Had watched Napoleon date that wide assortment of women—and loved him. Had said goodbye when Napoleon left for his twelve month stint as Section Chief of the London Branch—being groomed for the top position in New York, everyone knew it—and loved him. Had taken the news of his engagement like a slap in the face, because he loved him. Would bear up under it in smiling silence because he loved him, and would not make either of them ridiculous. And it was ridiculous. His long, silent passion for Napoleon Solo was ridiculous. But it was his. And he wasn't ashamed of it—why should he be? How could he have worked so closely with Napoleon, see how good he was, how fine and upright and brave and handsome and charming and honorable ... he made himself stop. Anyway, how could he help it? He couldn't.
He had tried—had tried dating women and found it empty, had acceded to Jess Coleman's urging and engaged in some—what did Jess call it? Heavy petting, and it had been pleasant enough but—he sighed. He liked Jess, he did. Jess was chief of security and undeniably attractive—tall, Illya's head barely reaching the middle of his chest, with dark hair and sparkling blue eyes, and a devilish grin. They had fun together, and when their evenings out ended on Jess's couch with Jess's mouth on his and Jess's hands wandering Illya allowed it, enjoyed it, reciprocated—he was young, and healthy—and the state of low level frustration his attraction to Napoleon kept simmering had to be released somehow—but he never allowed Jess the ultimate act. And Jess knew why. He had teased Illya about it in the beginning before realizing how serious it was
Jess would be sympathetic now, too. He could take comfort in Jess's lovemaking as well as in George's paternal affection, and he would take it. He would need all the warmth he could garner to get through the next three weeks—and beyond. Because it was effectively over, between him and Napoleon now. He knew it. There could be no more late night talks over wine, no more sleep overs or early morning breakfasts because now there was Laura. Laura would be there, and even when she wasn't it would be her home too and he wouldn't feel welcome. When Napoleon had extra tickets to the symphony he would take Laura now, not Illya—he'd peruse the paper for plays and shows Laura would enjoy instead of thinking of Illya—it was over. Again the hot salt of tears choked him, and again he forced them back. He would not—he absolutely would not sit alone in his apartment crying over Napoleon Solo, crying over a man who never had had a feeling stronger than friendship for him, a man who would recoil at the very idea. Gay, Napoleon had said in his list of the undesirable traits attributed to a single man and his voice had been—not contemptuous, but dismissive.
Illya wondered if Napoleon even knew about him and Jess Coleman, and if he would care if he did. What did it matter now anyway? Napoleon was getting married. And he would be fine. He would laugh at the inevitable jokes, would attend the parties, would buy a gift and meet Laura but he would not, he positively would not be Napoleon's best man. To stand next to Napoleon, and watch Napoleon pledge his life to this woman he didn't even know—to hold the ring and give it up at the right moment—no. He wouldn't. He wouldn't even attend the ceremony. He didn't have to punish himself that way because it was no crime, to have fallen in love and anyway he couldn't have helped it.
"Illya!" Napoleon's voice spun Illya around from where he had been bent over a test tube in Laboratory 7, and the sight of Napoleon standing there in the doorway flooded him with joy. Napoleon crossed the room in three long strides, and caught Illya into his arms. Surprised into immobility Illya let himself be hugged, vigorously, squeezed nearly breathless and he melted against Napoleon, he couldn't help it. Then Napoleon released him, gripped his shoulders, held him back, those brown eyes taking in every inch of him, and Illya smiled into them. Napoleon smiled back. "Illya—it is so good to see you." He hugged Illya again, and being in Napoleon's embrace was bliss, was heaven—again Napoleon held him off, and looked him up and down. "I have missed you enormously," Napoleon said, and laughed at himself.
"I missed you too."
"Illya—I don't think we've been apart for so long in all the time we've known each other."
"No. Eight months—no. We haven't."
"Well." Napoleon smiled again. "I'm glad it's over and I'm back."
"Are you back for good? I thought ..."
"No. I still have four months left. But it's more than half over."
"Two thirds over."
Napoleon laughed at that. "Yes. Two thirds over. And I'm here now."
"Me too." They smiled into one another's eyes, then came a delicate little cough.
"Laura!" Napoleon dropped his hands from Illya's shoulders and turned to the woman standing behind him. "I forgot you were here!" He laughed at himself again, but Laura didn't laugh. She was wearing a polite smile but she looked uncomfortable. Napoleon didn't seem to notice. He took her hand, drew her forward. "Laura Enfield, this is my partner, Illya Kuryakin. Illya—my fiancée, Laura."
"Pleased to meet you," Illya said, and she extended a hand.
"I've certainly heard a great deal about you—may I call you Illya?"
"Yes. Of course you can." Since she was looking him over so thoroughly he felt he could do the same, and his heart sank as he did so. She was tall, taller than he, and even the prim business suit she wore couldn't conceal her voluptuous figure. Her hair was a deep chestnut, her eyes a warm honey brown. Her makeup and hairdo were perfect. She was beautiful, and she and Napoleon made a striking pair. Suitable, Illya thought with a pang. She was eminently suitable—she and Napoleon were suitable together.
"If it weren't for Illya," Napoleon told her, "there would be no wedding coming up—because I wouldn't be here. He's saved my life more times than I can count."
"You've saved mine, too," Illya pointed out. "More often than I've saved yours."
"And you kept track." Napoleon smiled at him affectionately. "He's not only my partner, Laura, he's the best friend I have in the world."
"Yes, so you've said. Thank you, Illya, for keeping Napoleon alive and well for me."
"Um—" Illya didn't know how to answer that. To say you're welcome implied his tacit agreement that he had done it for her. To avoid answering seemed rude. "Um—it was my pleasure." He felt foolish, and flushed.
"So what is this nonsense about not being my best man?" Napoleon demanded, and Illya stiffened.
"It wouldn't be right," he said, knowing how lame it sounded "It wouldn't be fair to Charles. He will expect it Everyone will expect it—to be him, I mean."
"Charles is perfectly satisfied being my groomsman. He'll be busy seating Laura's family, and our grandmother, and other honored guests. I want you up there beside me, with the wedding ring in your pocket."
"No, thank you. Napoleon—I really appreciate the honor but it wouldn't be —" he floundered, found Napoleon's own word. "Suitable. It wouldn't be suitable."
"What am I going to do with you?" Napoleon said in exasperation, but he was still smiling. He wasn't worried by Illya's refusal—it was some cultural difference, that was all. In Russia it must always be the man's closest relative who did the honors. He would change Illya's mind—Illya couldn't say no to him for very long. "Look. We're having dinner tonight at Chez Henrll explain it to you then. You see, in America —"
"I can't have dinner with you tonight," Illya interrupted and saw Napoleon's surprise. He was very glad he'd accepted George's invitation. "I'm eating on Staten Island, with George. I didn't know you were coming," he added quickly when Napoleon's face darkened.
"No, I suppose that's true. Well, tomorrow night then."
"I can't. I'm working late. And I have to be in early the next morning."
"I see. Friday night."
"I'm going bowling with Jess." He'd have to call Jess right after Napoleon left but Jess would go along, he knew—all he had to do was let Jess know he was available and Jess would clear his calendar. Napoleon scowled.
"Saturday night," he said, and his voice was flint. His eyes matched it, and Illya surrendered.
"All right. Saturday night."
"Good. I'll let you know where and when." Napoleon was all affability again, and Illya set his mouth.
"But I'm not changing my mind," he warned and Napoleon waved a dismissive hand.
"I'm not worried about it. We have to run—Laura wants to check in at the hotel and fuss a bit before dinner. Not that she needs it, does she."
"No," Illya said, and it was the truth. "It was very nice meeting you, Laura."
"Nice meeting you too, Illya. See you Saturday night. And please make up your mind to say yes to Napoleon. I want my wedding to be perfect, and it won't be if he's dissatisfied."
Since making Laura's wedding perfect was not on his list of priorities, Illya only shook his head. "I can't. But I'm honored, Napoleon, that you want me."
"Not good enough, Illya." Napoleon was smiling, but his eyes weren't. "Not good enough by a long shot." He yielded then to Laura's tug at his arm, but at the door he pulled it free, came back into the room. "Did I tell you how good it is to see you?" he said, and Illya lifted his eyes to Napoleon's face.
"Thank you. It's good to see you too." Good wasn't exactly the right word—it was wonderful and terrible, a piercing sweetness and a bitter pang too. "When is the wedding, exactly?"
"Three weeks from today," Napoleon said and Laura, still standing at the door, made an impatient little sound. "And a lot to do. Laura doesn't even have her dress yet. So I'll see you—well, I hope before Saturday but definitely then."
"Definitely then," Illya agreed, and Napoleon leaned closer.
"I thought I told you you shouldn't be going out in public with Jess Coleman. People will talk."
"People will be right," Illya said flippantly and Napoleon's lips tightened.
"I hope you know what you're doing." Illya shrugged, and Napoleon put a finger under his chin, lifted it so their eyes met again. "I don't want you to get hurt, Illya, that's all." His voice was earnest, his eyes kind and Illya couldn't help it, he smiled up at him and his heart was on his face. Napoleon didn't see it, but the woman waiting for him did.
"I know. It's all right, Napoleon. I do know what I'm doing, and Jess does too."
"Want me to talk to him? Tell him he better toe the line if he knows what's good for him?"
"No, thank you." Napoleon's finger was still on his chin, and Illya hadn't moved. "That you want to is enough."
"Well." Napoleon became aware of his finger, and removed it. "Want him to get—I mean, will you want to bring him with you?" He swallowed. "To the wedding? As your guest?" And why was it so hard to say that? He should be glad, if Illya had someone he cared enough about to bring. "The invitations won't say 'and guest' because seating is limited, but in your case I'll make an exception."
Illya, who had no intention of going at all, frowned, at a loss. "Um—I don't know. You do what you think best, Napoleon. All right?"
"All right." Well then, if it was up to him Coleman was out of luck. And he might just talk to him anyway, whether Illya wanted him to or no. Coleman might not know, might not realize, just how special Illya was, and how he should be—he should be cherished. Not used for a brief affair and then discarded. Napoleon's fists clenched. "Well. Goodbye."
Illya, seeing the anger on Napoleon's face, stepped back a little. "Goodbye, Napoleon." He wanted to apologize, to explain—but how could he? He wished he had never brought Jess's name up at all. He didn't want Napoleon to be displeased with him, not now. "Please don't be angry." The words escaped him before he could call them back and Napoleon stopped at the door.
"I'm not," he said, voice very gentle now. "Illya—of course I'm not."
Dinner Saturday night was an ordeal. Illya held to his refusal to even consider being Napoleon's best man, and refused to explain further too. "I told you," he said over the appetizer when Napoleon first broached it. "I don't think it's appropriate. It should be Charles. People will wonder why it isn't."
"That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. And I'm not accepting it. I'm putting your name in the program, I'm ordering your tuxedo—he appraised Illya sharply. "You've lost weight since New Year's Eve. I'll tell the store to change your measurements."
"No. End of discussion."
"Good," Illya snapped back, and they glowered at one another throughout the soup course. Laura looked from one to the other and turned the conversation to the gossip from London. Illya, grateful, responded in kind. Napoleon remembered his manners and joined in and they spent the remainder of the evening pleasantly enough. Just before they separated Napoleon handed Illya an engraved invitation.
"The rehearsal is two weeks from Friday night at six o'clock. Be there. Dinner following at Luigi's. No guests," he added unnecessarily, since the invitation clearly stated the same. Illya's face closed, and for the first time Napoleon felt a stir of unease. He hadn't seen that expression since they had been in the field.
"I'm not coming."
Then you'll leave me in the lurch without a best man."
"That's your choice, Napoleon."
"You'll do it." He was confident again, the momentary doubt gone. Illya had never refused him anything. "As a personal favor to me, if for no other reason."
"I'd do anything for you, Napoleon. I hope you know that. But not this. I wish you'd stop asking me."
"When you stop saying no I'll stop asking."
Illya sighed. "Goodnight, Laura," he said politely and Laura Ensley, who had no desire to have her future husband spend any more time with this thin, blond young man than was necessary, nodded with equal politeness and they went their separate ways.
The night of the rehearsal Illya left work early. Napoleon had not given up, had called him and e mailed him and dropped by his office. Napoleon had argued, cajoled, ordered, persuaded. "Don't you care what you're doing to me?" Illya had flared just that afternoon. "I said no. No. Why can't you respect that?" And Napoleon had had no answer. But his face had been unyielding, so when he got an urgent page and turned to use Illya's phone Illya had fled. He went straight home, took his phone off the hook and disconnected his radio. He took his pen, which he and Napoleon still carried, and buried it in his bottom drawer under all his shirts. He felt uneasy over being completely—and against policy—out of touch, but decided the odds against a work related emergency were slim to none, whereas the odds of Napoleon trying to contact him again were high. He heated up some leftover pizza and curled up on the sofa, watching the news.
A knock at his door. Not Napoleon's peremptory summons—could it be work? Could something have happened? He hurried over, looked through the peephole. One of the couriers UNCLE employed. Feeling overwhelmingly guilty Illya opened up and the young man handed him a small package. He stared at it.
"I don't know, sir. Sign here, please." He extended his clipboard.
"Who is it from?"
"I don't have a name, sir, just an address."
"What is the address?" Illya took the clipboard from him and frowned at it. It was the Empire Hotel. Where Laura was staying. Where the wedding was to be held. "Wait." He shook the box and heard a faint shift. A ring. He knew it without question. Laura's wedding ring. Napoleon had had it messengered over to him, assuming that Illya would feel obliged to at least return it and then there he'd be, wouldn't he. At the rehearsal with the ring in his pocket. "No," he said, and handed it back. "I don't want it."
"Are you refusing delivery?"
"Yes. I am." Let Napoleon chew on that. "Here." He dug in his pocket, brought out a ten dollar bill. It wasn't the young man's fault.
"Thank you sir."
"You're welcome. Goodnight." He locked the door and went back to the sofa. How had it come down to this ridiculous battle? How had all his grief, his sense of final and irrevocable loss, been reduced to this childish argument—yes you will, no I won't, yes no yes no. What did it matter who held the ring? What mattered was that Napoleon was getting married. Napoleon didn't—didn't love him, not the way Illya wanted and even though he'd always known that, even though he'd had no hopes it was still heartbreaking. Napoleon didn't love him. It tore him open and a great sob shook him, hurting his chest, his throat, then he forced it back. He wouldn't be pathetic. He wouldn't. Even if nobody ever knew, he would know. Dignity wasn't something just put on for show. It was something you held on to even when you were alone. Even when you were alone forever. Even when ... he ground his teeth and got up. He had to do something besides sit on his sofa and cry over Napoleon. So he called Jess, who agreed to meet him for coffee later, but when Jess invited him to spend the night he refused. He did permit a goodnight kiss at his door but it left him cold, for the first time ever. Jess didn't seem offended, though, he just patted his back, promised to call him in the morning, and left.
Napoleon was furious. He accepted the package back from the courier and slammed it onto the table. "What is wrong with him?"
"What is wrong with you?" Laura retorted, not shouting—Laura never shouted, but in those clipped British tones that conveyed anger just as effectively. "He said no! He's said no right from the start! Now it's the day before the wedding and he's still saying no! The rehearsal is in shambles! Our rehearsal, Napoleon. Our wedding rehearsal. Don't you care at all?"
"Of course I do. That's why I sent him the ring, to get him here."
"He is not coming! Napoleon, I am trying to be patient. Your brother is right out there. Go ask him to be your best man. Give him the ring. We can get by with one less groomsman."
"I can't stand up there and get married without Illya beside me!" Didn't anyone else see how impossible that was? Illya, who had been with him through everything. Illya, the other half of his soul.
"You are not marrying him, damn it!" Laura's voice actually rose. "You are marrying me, or have you forgotten?"
Napoleon had never in his life struck a woman except in combat. But right now he wanted to. "How dare you say that to me? How dare you imply—how dare you suggest ... I know who I'm marrying."
"It doesn't sound like it! Did you even hear yourself? You can't get married without Illya beside you? Now, I am resigned to marrying a man whose best friend is in love with him. At least he has the decency to try to hide it. But I'll be damned if I'll marry a man who is equally in love and just doesn't want to admit it. I am not your beard!"
"I am not in love with Illya. And he is not in love with me."
"Why do you think he won't accept the position of your best man?" She was very tired, suddenly. "Because if he's in the wedding party, he'll have to show up. And he has no intention of showing up."
"Nonsense. Of course he'll show up. Why—he has to. How can I get married without ..." he stopped.
"Without Illya there," she finished. "Napoleon —" she came back to him and they faced each other, anger gone. "I am your bride. I'm the only one you have to have there. That you don't feel that way should tell you something."
"I don't want Illya there as my bride." His lip curled as he said it because it was ridiculous, plainly ridiculous "I want him there as my best friend, standing at my side. As he's always been."
"I'm going to be your wife, Napoleon. Don't I count at all? I'll be there. Why isn't that enough?"
"Because ..." and what could he say? It should be enough. She was right. "And what makes you think Illya is in love with me?" And why did just saying it make his heart soar?
"It's on his face when he sees you, in his eyes when he looks at you, in his voice when he says your name—in his whole body. He turns to you as if you were the center of the universe.."
"Nonsense," he said again, but his voice was no longer certain. She closed her eyes.
"The rehearsal is over," she said finally. "I'm going to the dinner now, and tomorrow I am going to get dressed and come back here to marry you. No illusions, no false promises—you've been honest with me and I with you. I know we don't love each other, not like that. And if that's because we don't believe in it, neither one of us, well, that's fine. But if it's because your heart is already given away, I'm not willing to accept that, Napoleon. So here's what I am asking. I want you to invite your brother to be your best man. I don't want Illya to do it. I don't want him there at all."
"I don't. I don't want him standing next to you at the altar. I don't want him sitting in a pew. I don't want him at the reception. After we're married you can go right on being friends as much as you please—but I don't want to see it. And part of our agreement was that we would be faithful to one another, Napoleon Solo. I will hold you to that. You're—you'd be my husband. I won't be made a fool of."
"I would never do that."
"I know. You're a good man, and you keep your word. But I want you to think very hard before you give it." She turned and left, and after several minutes he followed.
The dinner went splendidly. No one talked about the ruined rehearsal. Napoleon asked Charles to be his best man, and his older brother looked at him with that wry expression Napoleon knew so well.
"So you've decided to stop hounding poor Illya," he said finally. "Good."
"I was not hounding him."
"You've been stalking him mercilessly since you returned from England."
"He didn't have to say no."
"Yes he did, Napoleon." Charles was very serious now. "He has to."
Did everyone know more about Illya that he did? "So you'll do the honors?"
"Thank you." And that was that. Settled, as it should have been settled days ago. And at the end of the evening, when Napoleon walked Laura to her suite, she stopped at the door.
"You can't come in," she said, and smiled. "It's almost midnight. You can't see the bride on her wedding day."
"Right. Then I'll see you tomorrow."
"And if you change your mind—if you decide your affections are already engaged—call me, Napoleon. I'll understand." She would. She wouldn't even be particularly surprised. "But don't leave me standing at the altar. Let me keep some pride."
Napoleon was early for his wedding—too early. The hotel workers were just beginning to set up, unrolling the cream colored carpet Laura had selected, just a shade darker than her gown. Another group of men carried in the wrought iron benches for the guests, and a crew was twining ivy around pillars, hanging baskets of flowers with long trailing stems full of blossoms. Napoleon stood and watched them. His mood was unrelievedly black. After Laura's passionate speech he had gone home and thrown himself into work. Work had always been the place of escape, the place where any difficulties that had arisen in his private life were obliterated. But last night, for the first time, it failed him. He kept hearing Laura demand "I'll be there. Why isn't that enough?" He kept thinking of clever things he could have said, should have said, sharp retorts that would have ended the discussion, ended all speculation as to his feelings.
It's in his eyes, Laura had said, and in his voice when he says your name. His name did sound different on Illya's lips but that was the accent. He'd always liked it—had given Illya permission to use his first name way back when, at a time when he insisted that men he worked with call him Solo, or Mr. Solo, or Agent Solo. But Illya put that little exotic twist to it and he liked it.
He turns towards you like you're the center of the universe, Laura had also said, and it was true that Illya's face had lit at sight of him, after his long absence, eyes widening and darkening, luminous with joy. Illya had wonderful eyes, he had always thought so, blue, darkening when Illya was unhappy. He hated to see Illya unhappy, always bent over backwards to fix it, whatever it was.
Illya's eyes—wide and slightly tilted at the outer corners with a sweep of black eyelashes—spoke volumes to him. And Illya's hair was as wonderful as his eyes. It was—well, it said blond on Illya's documents and that was true as far as it went but it didn't describe how in the summer fiery red sparks glowed all through it, or how in winter it lightened to the color of December sunlight slanting across some snow covered field; how in firelight it was a deep rich gold. It was soft, and thick—he'd combed it out for Illya a few times when Illya had been sick or injured and unable to do it for himself. Illya was beautiful. Napoleon had never minded admitting that, at least to himself. He had never wondered at the way women flirted with him, the way men made advances—it was not only to find enough to eat that Illya had learned so young to fight so well.
Was Illya in love with him? His heart sang at the thought. Because if that were true—why, then, anything was possible. Everything was possible. He loved Illya, loved Illya with all the very best that was in him Had missed Illya excruciatingly while he'd been in London. Had taken Illya into his arms on his return and known he was home. Had looked down into Illya's face, radiant with happiness—and what a lovely mouth Illya had. Generous, mobile—what would it be like, to kiss that mouth, to crush that lithe body against his? To give his own heart, and know that it was in safe keeping? To go through his life—their lives—the way they had gone through the fieldwork? Counting on one another, trusting one another, laughing together, talking endlessly into the night, turning one to another in the dark—waking together in the morning. He didn't realize he was smiling until the soft voice reached his ears.
"Penny for your thoughts." He didn't start, he was too well trained for that, but he turned and found himself looking into Laura's face.
"I was thinking about ..." he began, then stopped. How could he tell Laura he had been thinking about Illya, about their shared past, about Illya's heart, which Napoleon had never known was his. But Laura nodded.
"You were thinking about him."
"Not me, your bride on our wedding day."
"Laura ..." what could he say? It was true.
"And what conclusion have you come to?"
"That you're right. I can't—I can't marry you. I'm sorry."
She sighed, and lifted her suitcase to show him. "I know. I'm sorry too, Napoleon. We would have been good together."
And he couldn't agree. So far had he traveled in his thinking over the past twelve hours that he couldn't agree. They would have been content enough, he supposed, and good for one another's careers, but—"I'm sorry."
"Good-bye, Napoleon." She kissed his cheek. "I wish you joy."
"Would you take care of —" she indicated the room around them, which was now fully set up for a wedding.
"Go ahead with the reception, Napoleon. It's paid for, and everyone is looking forward to a party."
"All right." He watched her leave, trim and composed, carrying her suitcase, walking out of his life, before turning to dismiss the crew, to address the guests as they arrived, to speak privately to Charles. Charles surprised him enormously by grinning and clapping him on the back.
"Good," he said. "I'm with you, Napoleon. It might not be easy ... especially in the beginning."
"No." He supposed it wouldn't be.
"But I couldn't be happier for you. Go for it. In fact—go for it right now. I'll direct everyone to the dining room for the reception, and speak to the hotel. We can start a little earlier than scheduled. You go.
"I don't feel right leaving you to clean up my mess."
"Illya is no doubt as wretched as it is possible for someone to be right now. You can fix that."
"Yes." He could. He would, right now. "Thanks, Charles. I'll fill you in later."
And he drove too fast, he knew it as he was doing it, too fast through the crowded streets of Manhattan but he didn't care. He was going to his love, his life was about to start afresh and everyone else—had just better get out of the way.
When the clock told him it was eleven o'clock, the exact moment when the wedding music would start to play, Illya gave up his long struggle and, putting his head down on the sofa, decided to let the tears come. What difference did it make now? So he was pathetic. So what? The image of Napoleon, standing at the head of the aisle, smiling and watching Laura come towards him, broke his heart. That was all there was to it. Dignity, pride—none of it mattered now. Besides, no one would ever have to know. Even Jess—even George—they didn't have to know that Napoleon's wedding had reduced Illya to this. This terrible feeling that his heart had been ripped out of his chest, this pain that was worse than anything he had ever known -this depression that was rising around him like a black tide. And there was nothing he could do about it—not even, as it turned out, cry. He had no tears. He had nothing at all. He lay there, so lost in his private misery that he didn't even hear the faint tap at his door.
Napoleon unlocked the door with his own key, reached inside and turned off the alarm before slipping inside, closing and locking the door behind him. Then he turned. Illya was lying on the sofa in a crumpled heap, face hidden, one hand clenched into a fist beside him, the other hanging over the edge of the sofa, open and defenseless. The sight of him took away the carefully prepared speech Napoleon had had ready, leaving him defenseless too. He couldn't get a word through his tight throat so he crossed the room, sat on the sofa and laid a hand on Illya's shoulder.
Illya's body knew Napoleon before his mind did, so he went into the embrace without question. He didn't wonder what Napoleon was doing there. It was enough that he was there, drawing Illya close, closing both arms around him and holding him, warm and solid and strong, easing the pain, comforting, consoling—Illya wrapped his arms around Napoleon's neck and felt Napoleon's own face against his, Napoleon's lips brushing his temple, his lashes, whispering incoherent endearments. Napoleon stroked his hair, rubbed his back, and Illya turned his head so his own lips touched Napoleon's neck, dazed by the scent of him, the feel of him, the sound of his voice saying such wonderful things—was he dreaming? Had he fallen asleep and was now dreaming? If so, he never wanted to wake up. In fact, he must be dreaming. Because Napoleon couldn't be here, Napoleon right at this moment was walking back down the aisle, arm in arm with Laura, smiling and laughing and waving to his friends—the pain of that image was so savage it wrenched a cry from him.
"How—how can you be here? You're getting married—you're married already!" Napoleon shook his head.
"No. I'm not. I—I changed my mind, Illya."
"You what?" Illya tried to sit up, to collect himself but Napoleon wouldn't let him, wouldn't let go. The best he could do was roll his head a little on Napoleon's shoulder so he could look into his face. "What do you mean, you changed your mind?"
"Just that. I've called off the wedding, and I've come here. To you." Napoleon kissed his cheek.
"On her way back to England."
"Because I don't love her, Illya. I love you."
"Now I know I'm dreaming, Napoleon." He managed to draw back enough to look into Napoleon's eyes. "Because you don't believe in that. You never say it."
"I was wrong."
"You never say that either."
"Illya —" he laughed. "You are not dreaming. I promise you. You are wide awake, and I will spend the rest of my life telling you I was wrong. I was wrong, and blind, and foolish. All this happiness was right under my nose and I didn't see it."
"Pinch me then. So I can wake up. Because the longer this goes on, the worse it will be when it ends."
"I most certainly will not pinch you."
"Then I will." Illya did, a vicious twist of flesh that made him gasp. Napoleon knocked his hand away, pressed his lips to the place which was already darkening.
"Don't do that." He kissed it again. "I told you. You're awake."
"I am?" Illya stared at him. "This—this is real? You're really here?"
"And tell me why again?"
"I love you."
"You love me?"
"But—what about the wedding?"
"I canceled it."
"And now I'm using my week's leave to take you away."
"Yes. And when we come back, you will move in here. With me."
"Yes. And Illya —" he smiled right into Illya's eyes.
"We are going to be so very happy—you'll see. It will be a scandal."
"And you don't care?"
Napoleon laughed. "No. "
"I don't know what to say."
"Do you love me?" Napoleon looked uneasy. "Have I just made a complete fool of myself and forfeited your friendship into the bargain?"
"No. Napoleon—no. I love you. I've —" he couldn't find words, for all the years of hopeless longing. "I've always loved you." And those were the right words, he saw it in Napoleon's face, which was eager and young in a way Illya hadn't seen for years.
Napoleon took both of Illya's hands, pressed a kiss to each palm. "All my life's happiness," he whispered, "lies here." He lifted Illya's hands, laid his cheek against them. "And I will do my utmost to make you happy too, Illya. If you want me to."
"I want you to." Happiness was lighting up his spirit, heating up his flesh as he watched Napoleon reach for him.
Napoleon gathered him in slowly, carefully, Illya's head falling back as Napoleon leaned over him, their mouths touching.
Passion ignited in a white hot burst and they clutched at one another, pulling at one another's clothes. Napoleon pushed Illya over onto his back, spread his legs and took him, all in one motion and Illya cried out, clung to him, held fast in those strong arms while Napoleon's mouth traveled down his throat, to his shoulder, back up to his temple, lips hot there, holding him so close, their bodies so close ... "Oh," Illya whispered, face rapt. "Oh, yes, yes —" he caught his breath and then Napoleon kissed him again, kissed him while they sank back down onto the couch, where he kissed him some more.
Later they did it again, slower this time, finishing in a tangle on the floor. Illya sat there for a minute, catching his breath while Napoleon got up, brushed himself off, settled his clothing and began looking for his phone. "We'll leave this afternoon," he said as he entered the first number "I'll rent a plane."
"Are you really sure you want to do this? I mean I'm not very —" he forced himself to say it, "suitable. I'm not suitable at all."
Napoleon looked at him and had to laugh. Illya was still sitting on the floor, with a coverlet draped across his back from the sofa. His hair was disheveled, his clothing decidedly disarranged. Napoleon crossed the room, dropped to his knees and kissed his cheek. "Yes, I want to do this. You" he smiled into Illya's face, which brightened, and what a beautiful smile Illya had. He kissed it. "Suit me fine."
"You suit me too, Napoleon." Napoleon was bringing him down onto the floor and he wriggled a little, made himself comfortable on the coverlet and oh, they were well suited, they certainly were.