A Trackless Domain Book 6: The Happy Ending
THE HAPPY ENDING
Here is the final 'director's cut' version of A Trackless Domain Book 6. After this the sections are pretty much the same as the published version (available from Joyce and Bast). I wrote this because I couldn't stand the way I left it in Dark Passage. It seemed too sad to me too that Illya and Jess's story ended the way it did. Plus I knew Napoleon was as tired of traveling so much as Illya was of having him gone. So I tied it up and wrapped it in a bow and here it is.
Jess stood at the top of a little rise, looking over the crowd. The scene was just the same as the last time he'd seen it, that Fourth of July six years ago. Crowds of people - most of whom he recognized, some of whom he didn't - swarmed everywhere. From the field came the cheers of people watching the softball game. "That's where we're headed," he said to Nick, who nodded and followed him across the wooded area to the ball field. They climbed the bleachers, each stride a stretch even for two men as well conditioned as they were. On the top level they sat, put on sunglasses, and surveyed the panorama before them.
"So," Nick said after a minute. "Can you identify any of the principals in this drama of yours?"
Jess scanned the crowd. "There." He pointed to a row near the center. "That's Solo. In the khaki. With Jake Davenport." Nick looked at the two men, both dressed just a shade more formally than the rest of the crowd. There was a little space around them and Nick grinned. "No one wants to sit next to the boss," he said. "Same as at home."
Jess indicated the big, burly man with short cropped grey hair standing on the ball field. "George Piper. We used to be friends, before the shit came down. He's an okay guy though. He was right all along, about all of it."
"There now," Nick said in his easy drawl. "That was then. Where's the male lead?"
"That was me," Jess protested and Nick laughed.
"All right. Then where ..."
"There." Jess pointed. "Just coming up to the plate." He stared at Illya, standing holding the bat, ponytail pulled through the hole in his cap and hanging down to his waist. Even from here he looked wonderful.
"Well?" Nick asked him. "Does he still make your heart go pitter pat? Can he play ball or is he just for decoration?"
Jess laughed. "Yes and yes. Only pitter pat doesn't exactly describe it. Boom chukka boom is more ..." at that moment Illya hit the ball out of the field and followed the previous three runners home. Judging from the wild applause it was the end of the game. Illya was laughing now, flushed with triumph and exertion, and turned in a circle, arms outspread, acknowledging the applause from the stands. Then he saw Jess, high up on the bleachers, standing and clapping with the rest. His mouth fell open, and suddenly Jess's wish of so long ago came true - he got to see Illya's face light up like the dawn at sight of him. In another minute Illya took off across the field in their direction.
Jess! It was Jess, really there, really right there - Illya flew up the bleachers, one leap after another and when he reached the top level he threw himself on Jess without any slackening of his speed, knocking him backwards despite his attempts to brace himself. Only Nick's strong arm kept them both from falling.
"Whoa there." Nick pulled Illya upright, straightened his cap. "It's a long way down."
"Not to mention, Jess said, shaking a finger at Illya, "that it was highly inappropriate."
"That was nothing," Illya said and stood on a bleacher to give him enough height to kiss Jess resoundingly on both cheeks. Jess couldn't help it - he looked directly into those wide blue eyes, set at that bewitching little slant and gave Illya a big loud smacking kiss right on the mouth. Illya laughed, blushed and climbed back down. He turned on a tug at his ponytail to find himself looking up further at a very large, powerfully built man with flaming red hair in a buzz cut and green eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled. He was smiling now and Illya, too happy to discriminate, smiled back.
"Look at what we have here," the stranger said, with a country drawl. "Jess told me you were attractive - a New York word if I ever heard one - but he didn't tell me you were so little. Why ..." he stepped back, looking Illya up and down. "You ain't no bigger'n a bug's ear and twice as cute." He tweaked Illya's nose and Illya blushed again, still smiling, and looked up at him through his eyelashes.
"Aren't you nice," he said. "A bug's ear? Are they cute?"
"Can't tell - they're too little to see," Nick answered and Illya laughed.
"But you can see me."
"Yes I can and you're even prettier than your picture. I would not have believed that possible."
"My ... oh." Suddenly Illya got the connection between this stranger and Jess's reappearance and blushed even more deeply. He tried to restrain himself, lowering his eyes, folding his hands in front of him, stilling his body; unable to contain the smile that kept twitching the corners of his mouth, or the joy that was sparkling in his face.
"He just can't help it, can he?" Nick asked Jess and tousled Illya's hair. "I'm Nick McKinney, since you've shut Jess's mouth for the time being."
"No, he shut mine," Illya said smartly and dared another sidelong look at Nick. "But that was all right, wasn't it? It was just because I was surprised. It won't happen again."
"All right with me? Sure. I'm not so certain about the guy right behind you though."
Illya turned around and saw Napoleon, who was standing with his hands in his pockets, regarding Jess with no warmth. "Napoleon!" Illya was too excited to let Napoleon's expression trouble him. "Look! Jess is back! And this is Nick." Already feeling he had an ally he looked at him. "Nick, this is Napoleon. Napoleon Solo, Nick McKinney. Nick is with Jess." He was looking at Napoleon again, eyes openly begging him not to put a shadow on this moment. Napoleon shook Nick's hand.
"Mr. Solo. You with little bit here?"
"What? Oh." Napoleon laughed out loud, to Illya's relief. "Yes."
"I'll be damned." George had come to join the group at the top of the bleachers. He stood for a moment, glaring at Jess, then punched him right in the jaw. People around them gasped and backed away, someone screamed, Jess fell over onto the floor between the seats with a crash, and then everything was still. Illya moved quickly, going over to stand in front of George, facing him, back to the others deliberately.
Reaching up he put both hands on George's shoulders. "That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me," he said and smiled at him. "I love you for it." He kissed George's cheek. "Don't do it again."
"Okay. Geez, Illya, there's a hundred people looking." George swiped at his cheek with his arm and Illya smiled again. Then he turned around, chin raised challengingly - nobody better even think of hitting George back, not Jess, not Nick - he'd take both of them and ... but Jess was only sitting and rubbing his jaw, Nick was going over to the concession stand and Napoleon - Napoleon was trying manfully not to laugh.
"Illya." Jess stood up again, still rubbing his jaw. "Can we talk?"
"We talk first," Napoleon said and started back down the steps. Jess followed and they stood together by home plate. "You've got the job if you want it," Napoleon told him. "You're by far the most qualified applicant, and you happen to be the best at what you do."
"Thank you. I wasn't sure ..."
"I would neither award nor withhold this position for personal reasons. However. Illya never would tell me what happened between you two, but if it happens again I'll kill you." Napoleon didn't raise his voice, or change his tone but Jess, looking into those flat brown eyes, believed him. "You hurt him. Somehow, despite everything, he'd managed to hang onto some innocence and you took it from him. Now you're back, and the first thing he did was jump on you and the first thing you did was kiss him. I need to be very sure we're not going back to the same pattern."
"I don't want him hurt again. Not like that. You gave him assurances, and promises of security, and then you pulled them out from under him and let him fall - and over that." Napoleon found himself using Illya's own word. "For that, you left him. Do you have any idea what you did to him? You shattered him." He had said all this in the same uninflected voice. "Now he's happy again. And here you are."
"It won't be like that."
"What exactly has changed?"
"I have. I hope I've matured since then. I was wrong. I knew what leaving would do to him - but I had to. I wasn't good for him anymore, and he wasn't good for me."
"And whose fault was that?"
"Mine. I know it was mine. I've regretted - so much, for so long. I'd like the chance to fix it, as much as I can."
"Remember what I said. I am not going back to where we were. If I see that happening I will end it myself before Illya gets in too deep. Clear?"
"All right." They climbed up and Illya looked at Napoleon hopefully, relaxing and smiling even wider at the answer he read in his lover's face.
"Illya?" Jess didn't follow Napoleon all the way. "Can we talk?"
"Yes. Napoleon - I'll be right back. Will you wait for me?"
"All right. But I have to meet with Davenport in an hour and I'm not sure how long it will take."
"Yes, but I hope to have something good to tell you soon."
"Really? Tell me now."
"I don't know it now."
"But you think you do."
"I think I do, yes."
Illya sighed in exasperation but smiled at the same time. "All right, Napoleon. I'll see you later. George - are we still on for fishing this afternoon?"
"Yes. I'll wait for you too. Coleman ..." George couldn't finish. He just glared, Illya's order the only thing keeping him from knocking Coleman on his ass again. He wanted to badly. How could Illya be so forgiving? Had Illya forgotten those terrible months after Coleman left? How could Illya smile at him and flirt with his new boyfriend and kiss him for crying out loud! Plus George's hand hurt - a lot. He could just picture what Mae would say if it was broken - which it sure felt like it was.
"It was very nice to meet you, Nick," Illya was saying, and smiled at him. He had taken to Nick instantly and didn't mind showing it.
Nick smiled back down at him warmly. "You too Illya. Are the eats here pretty good?"
"Yes. Are you staying for the fireworks?"
"Good. I'm sure you'll enjoy them." Illya didn't, as he once would have, issue an invitation. Neither George nor Napoleon would want to eat or watch fireworks with Jess, and Illya couldn't blame them. He did remember those months when all he could do was mourn and all George and Napoleon could do was hold his hand while he did so. He went down the ramp this time, instead of jumping across the bleachers; stopping once at the bottom to turn and smile at them all again before he and Jess walked onto the field.
For a long while they just stood there, looking at each other. The last time they had been together Illya had been nearly demented with fear and pain, and Jess had been leaving. Now, five years older, five years between them of separate lives, separate experiences, they each found the other good, still. Illya looked at Jess - as handsome, strong and reliable as ever but with lines bracketing his nose and mouth that had not been there before. On his side Jess found, to his relief, that the old sick longing was gone. The sight of Illya warmed him all over, but the wretched misery had lifted. He no longer felt that aching void that he was once sure only Illya could fill. He was full. He had discovered that even before he met Nick. He smiled tenderly. "Hi, Illya."
"Hi Jess." Illya smiled too. "You came back."
"Yes. I told you I would, if I could."
"And now you can?"
"Because of Nick?"
"Because of me."
"Jess - I've wanted to apologize all this time for making such a scene when you left, and not telling you goodbye right. I ..."
"No, Illya. That's all right. You don't owe me an apology. I owe you one."
"No. Let me finish. I violated the trust you placed in me. You always said it wasn't sexual, and I always said all right, and then I attacked you."
"It was hardly ..."
"Illya, please let me finish. If we can't be honest ... I know what I did. And so do you. We both know you begged me to stop and I wouldn't. We both know that when I was done, I did it again, and then blamed you for it. We both know I left you cruelly and in violation of every promise I had made to you. I'm asking you if you can forgive me."
"Can you ever trust me again?"
"How can you say that so easily?"
"Am I safe with you now? Am I?"
"I love you so much, Jess. I've missed you so much - I felt so bad that I'd driven you away by - by being that ugly name."
"You weren't. You acted in all innocence and I took advantage of it.":
"Well - I forgive you. Do you forgive me?"'
"Did I really ruin your life?"
"No. I was just being cruel. I'm sorry."
"Good." Illya's face was bright, tipped expectantly up to Jess's. "Do you love me again?"
"I never ever stopped loving you."
"Without - that?"
"Illya, Illya." Jess looked him up and down and was pleased by what he saw. "You're more beautiful than ever. How old are you now?"
The double echo passed over, casting a brief shadow, like a cloud on a sunlit landscape, and cleared as quickly. He was free of that. It was lovely that Jess found him beautiful still, and the other question was merely a question. "I'm thirty."
Thirty. Jess could see it in Illya's face - maturity only serving to highlight the elegant cheekbones, the pure lovely molding of his jaw and chin, the great eyes with no shadows in or under them, the beautiful mouth. "How are you doing?"
"Fine. It's been years since I heard his voice. Years since I dreamed. I've been free of him since I left his house."
"I'm so glad."
"I would never have left if you were still so sick. You knew that, right?"
"Yes. You'd done your job. You'd protected me - even against myself. Especially against myself. I did know that."
"Good. So I can come back and we can be friends?"
"Yes. Can I tell you something?"
"Before everything - before, I used to pretend you were my big brother." Illya smiled at himself. "Then it started to seem a little ... a little ..."
"I was thinking inappropriate, but all right. Can - can we go back to that? I've had too many men who wanted to sleep with me. I never had a brother until Charles. And I like it. Can we try that?"
"Except for one thing."
"I think you might have two big brothers now. Besides Charles."
"What - oh. Nick." Illya laughed. "Good."
"Good." Jess extended his hand and Illya took it, smiling when Jess solemnly pumped it up, down and done.
Napoleon had been watching them, and when he saw the handshake he looked over at Nick, who was talking to George. He thought again of the news he hoped to give Illya tonight, and smiled. Just then Illya came bounding up the steps, stopping to squeeze Napoleon's arm before coming to stand in front of Nick and George. Both men turned to smile at him, then George said his goodbyes and he and Illya left together.
"Fishing," Illya explained, stopping again on the way down to pat Napoleon's shoulder and Napoleon, in a rare public demonstration put a kiss on top of Illya's head. Illya went on his way, so happy he could barely contain himself. He followed George to their favorite spot, set up and put his pole in the water.
Propped up against George, back to back, secure and comfortable there, he spoke quietly. "George? You haven't said anything. Are you all right?"'
"I think I broke my hand on Coleman's damn jaw," George grumbled and Illya sat up and turned around to look at it. It was swollen and discolored and he frowned. Carefully he took it between his own and felt along the bones and joints, face attentive as if listening to the data those long cool fingers were collecting. George felt no pain from that touch, and when Illya smiled and said no, it wasn't broken, just bruised and swollen George was relieved because Illya obviously knew. He flexed the hand carefully while Illya went to find the First Aid tent.
He returned with an icepack, and a six pack. "For all your aches and pains," he teased and George grinned, put one on his hand and the other down his throat and let Illya settle back against him.
"Illya - how can you just ... take him back like that? After everything? Don't you remember what he put you through? Don't you care about that?"
"I remember." Illya was quiet for some time. Then he rubbed his head against George's back. "I remember you. Don't think I don't. Don't think I forget who left me and who stayed through everything. Your love is like Napoleon's - it's a strength in you. Jess's love wasn't. But his friendship was. If I can have that again, and all I have to do is forgive, then I'm glad to. But I remember."
"Well. You know I only want you to be happy."
"I was before. And yes, I am now. And I loved you hitting him. Is that bad of me?"
George laughed. "No. It's fine." They said nothing else, and when it grew darker Illya brought George to the First Aid tent in person for a fresh icepack and then they returned to their spot where Mae and Napoleon greeted them lazily.
Later, full of barbeque and ribs, corn and steak, beer and ice cream Illya sat next to Napoleon and they watched the fireworks. It was surprisingly chilly and Napoleon got out a lap robe, spread it over them both, and then took advantage of the dark and the cover to hold Illya's hand. He probably didn't need to bother hiding it, he thought, feeling Illya's fingers curl around his. He and Illya were old news by now. "Happy?" he whispered and Illya nodded.
"Yes. What did you want to tell me?"
"Later." Napoleon smiled at him. "When we're alone."
"All right." They watched the remainder of the fireworks in companionable silence and when they were finished said their goodnights to George and Mae before leaving.
"Six years ago he danced with me and George at this picnic with his hair down and flowers all through it," Jess said to Nick as they walked to their truck. "It was quite a sight."
"I'll bet. Jess? Any of those old feelings still there?"
"Okay." Illya was nothing like the mental picture Nick had formed of him, and he was glad. They finished loading the truck and drove home together.
In the car Illya was very quiet. It was a long drive, and he sat on his side and looked out the window, able to see little except glimpses of his own ghostly reflection. Jess was back. He turned that over and over in his mind. His first reaction had been a true and honest one - he was glad to see Jess. Part of him - the part that had never stopped compulsively replaying the best times over and over, with the same terrible ending - was infinitely relieved. That hadn't been the end after all. The story didn't start with Jess saving him and end with Jess leaving him. They would be friends, now, and more - he had assigned Jess his brotherly role with intent, despite his ingenuous air. That was all he had to give. Right now Jess didn't want more than that. Good. If that changed, Illya would know it, and he would end it himself. And that would be sad too, heartbreakingly sad - sadder even than being left - but he would do it. What was essential to him was in this car. Napoleon and the life they had built together was essential. Jess's love, as it had turned out, was optional - optional first to Jess himself, because when it brought him more than a certain quotient of pain he had opted out of it; and, evidently, optional to Illya too, because he had survived its loss. And if Jess's return should ever again threaten what he had here, with Napoleon, Illya knew he would opt out himself. He should have known all of that from the start, but George was right - he had missed too much.
Dr. Ludvic had said as much when, nearly three months after Jess's departure he had gone to her. He had gone to her reluctantly, dragging his feet, unable to regard it as anything but a setback; he had gone to her mainly to please George.
"And I can't stop," he said, after telling her the whole story. "It's too much, I know it is - too much for too long. That's why I'm here. I have George and Napoleon worried half to death - Napoleon turned down four trips in a row, and then I made him go."
Davenport had called Illya in one day and laid it out flatly. "Agent Solo will be asked to take a formal leave of absence if his personal circumstances continue to prevent him from doing his job," he'd said. Illya had looked at him for a long time.
"I see," he answered finally.
"I hope so."
"I made him go," Illya repeated now, "but it's terrible when he's gone. It's bad when he's there too, but I can't stop." Indeed, even as he spoke, face had crumpled. "It's just so sad that Jess is gone and it's my fault, and that I ruined his life. This is the end of the whole thing, and it started so well. But I ruined it by making him want me - he said then, way back then in the hospital - that no one else would ever look half as good to him again thanks a lot and look at me, just look at me." Illya scrubbed at his eyes with his fists. "I know there are all these reasons why it happened but all I can see is that he said he loved me and he left me. He said he would never leave me and he did." He abandoned the struggle and put his head down on her desk. "He said he'd be there forever and he isn't. He said he'd always take care of me and he's gone. I can't get past that, Dr. Ludvic. And I know it hurts Napoleon to see me grieving like this for Jess - I know it does. It makes him feel he's not enough for me, that he isn't making me happy and that makes me even sadder, that I'm failing Napoleon, that I'm letting him down when he's so good to me."
"So you are not angry in the least yourself? Mixed in with the guilt and the sorrow - there is no anger?"
"No. It seems so completely my fault."
"But you asked him to stop."
"It was too late by then."
"It should never be too late."
"That's very correct of you. I approve. But nevertheless, sometimes it is. Not with Napoleon. But Jess isn't Napoleon."
"Well, who is." She said it dryly, thinking Napoleon Solo had a high enough opinion of himself as it was without Illya's help, but Illya took her seriously.
"That's true. He's the best man in the world. And I'm hurting him and worrying him. Tell me how to stop it."
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know? You're my doctor."
"If you come to me with an infection, I can treat it with antibiotics. If you have broken bones I can set them. But you come to me with a broken heart and a guilty conscience, and there are not such easy solutions for that."
"But you're a psychiatrist, too. You're supposed to be able to fix everything."
"All right. Speaking as a psychiatrist, I believe you are suffering a recurrence of the depression you have experienced before. These feelings of guilt and overwhelming sorrow, obsessively going over and over the same ground, the loss of appetite and sleep disturbances - over such a long period of time - these signs all point to a true clinical depression. Your prior history of such depression confirms my diagnosis. The recommended treatment is to resume our therapeutic sessions while starting you on a course of antidepressants."
"What? No!" Illya came to his feet. "I'm not taking any drugs and you know better!"
"You asked me."
"Well - no. Thank you. My mind - I like the way it works just the way it is. I'd rather feel bad and be able to think. I'll talk to you, but that's it."
"An intelligent, insightful choice, and one I respect. And sounding much better than just saying 'No I won't' and stamping your feet."
Illya had to laugh. "I never stamped my feet."
"You wanted to."
"Sometimes people love you and go away anyway," she said quietly, and Illya sat down. "That is, unfortunately, something you should have learned long ago. Most children learn it on entering school, if not sooner. Sometimes people go away for reasons of their own. It does not mean you are not loved. Jess loves you. Traveling to Glasgow does not make that less true."
"It makes it sad, though."
"Yes it does. It is sad. Let yourself grieve, Illya - you are grieving for more than Jess Coleman leaving. You are grieving for all the love you never had, and you are entitled. But I think it is good that you are here. How do you manage when Napoleon is gone?"
"I call George."
"I know how that sounds. I tried not to. I didn't call him that night, after Jess sent me home. I really wanted to but it was late so I didn't. But now I do." Illya bent his head. "I feel so abandoned. When Napoleon's not there - and sometimes when he is - George is the only barrier between me and ... and the abyss. That little boy is right on the edge and it's George's arms and George's love that keep him from falling."
"Can you not step back from the edge yourself?"
"No. I can't. You won't have me locked up?"
"No - not unless you are seriously telling me you plan to end your life."
"No. That would be wrong. Wicked and wrong, to do that to them. How could our story end like that? Napoleon's and mine - George's and mine. If I can't bear the way Jess ended our story, then that would be worse. And it would be silly, too. Napoleon is more than Jess. If I'm not going to finish my story with Napoleon because of Jess I might as well have gone to Scotland. At least then Jess would be happy."
"Do you regret the choice you made?"
"No. It wasn't even a choice. I'm with Napoleon. I don't have those feelings for Jess." Illya stared sightlessly at her wall and she watched him, pupils slightly dilated, violet shadows under his eyes testimony to the sleepless nights he had told her about - face thinner. But not too much, not for three months - he was eating something. "I want Jess back," Illya whispered finally. "If I thought it would help I'd lie on the floor like Katie."
"Napoleon's brother-in-law's little girl. When she wants something she lies on the floor and screams and kicks until she gets it. That's what I want to do, kick and scream and make everything stop until Jess comes back to me, but I can't."
"No. Think how it would look." That he could laugh at himself even in the present situation encouraged her, and she watched him do so with pleasure. "And now think, Illya, about what you have said. Is such a tantrum an expression of grief? Does Katie behave so out of sorrow?"
"No," Illya whispered, struck by the truth of her words. "Anger. She does it when she's angry. But I don't feel angry."
"Yet you wish to kick and scream."
"He said what they all say, what I told you."
"I am sorry - what did you tell me about that?"
"That he couldn't help it, he couldn't stop because of me."
"Because you are beautiful." She did remember that conversation now. "He told you that?"
"Illya - you have a right to be angry."
"But I can't be angry with Jess. I love Jess."
"You can be angry with him and still love him."
"So they tell me." He was silent.
She waited, but after a while it became obvious that if Illya was indeed going to consider what she and 'they' told him it would be privately, later - or quite possibly not at all. Meanwhile he looked so sad. She patted his arm and when he lifted his eyes she gave him a warm smile. He didn't smile back but he laid those cold fingers on hers for a moment in acknowledgement of her sympathy. When he withdrew she did too and leaned on her desk, returning to the practical. "So you call George when it becomes too much for you."
"Yes. He's saving me."
"Even more so than Napoleon?"
"Yes, because - because when it's him, that little boy - he doesn't really know Napoleon. And he shouldn't. He shouldn't have to think about a lover. Should he."
"So he - we - hold onto George for dear life and it's hard on him and not really fair ..." Illya thought. "But it's not forever. It can't be. If it wasn't forever before, when I was so ... then it won't be forever now."
"Soon you will not need to see me at all," she said, and pretended to wipe her eyes. "As it is you come now to hear yourself talk. You have your own answers."
"But it helps to say it to you. I shouldn't have forgotten that. I could sit around and talk to myself all I wanted and it wouldn't be the same."
"Thank you, dear."
His eyes darkened even further. "Jess wanted to call me all kinds of things - baklava, spun sugar whatever - it makes me so sad that he wants all that with me and it's so impossible. I know how I would feel if it was me - if I felt this way about Napoleon and he didn't - it would be so sad." His voice broke.
"Jess Coleman in some ways is a child himself," she said. "He has to my knowledge never been denied anything he really wanted. He is gifted with extraordinary good looks, athletic ability, an excellent mind and that indefinable thing that makes some people leaders and some not. Every time Jess has reached out his hand he has gotten what he reached for. Now he is being told no. It is as hard in its way as being told goodbye. But he will have to sort that out for himself. You cannot do it for him, any more than George can do your grieving for you, although he would if he could, to save you pain. Life can be sad. And sometimes love can be the saddest thing of all." She looked at Illya, with his elbows propped on her desk, chin resting on his folded hands. "That is another lesson you never had to learn before. One thing your uncle did not do, one trick he missed, was to tell you he did those things to you because he loved you, or that he could not help the things he did and you should love him anyway. Nothing he did to you ever made you think less of love, or of being loved."
"No. Love was this wondrous thing - out of my reach, but perfect." Illya examined this thought. "And that's how I still think it should be. I think that because Jess loves me he shouldn't be weak but that is a weakness in him, his feelings for me. That's one of the things that's different, because Napoleon - his love is a strength in him. Is that why Napoleon is strong enough to stop when I say stop and Jess wasn't?"
"So when I expect love to be perfect I'm being a child again, aren't I."
"In a way."
"But I am a child still, somewhere. Sometimes I can hear him, wanting to be loved, wanting to be held, wanting to be safe. Not really hear him," he hastened to explain. "Not like I used to hear - his voice. My uncle's voice. But I can feel him, what he needs."
"And do you give it to him? Now that you are the one who can?"
"Well, wherever he is, by this time he must be wondering why you don't feed him." She said this a little sternly. "That is a habit I do not like to see you slipping back into. In fact, here is my prescription, Illya. You are correct, you do not need drugs. You need to go home and feed that little boy. Let Napoleon see you eat. Find a smile for him. Make him feel he is enough, if only for tonight. See if that does not help you to feel stronger."
"All right." Illya set his jaw, and seeing it she smiled. "I will. You - you're not upset with me about Jess? I know he is your friend."
"No, child, I am not upset with you. I am sorry this has happened, and pleased to see you trying so hard to cope."
"Thank you." Illya rose and extended his hand. She took it and held it for a minute.
"It is probably for the best," she said to him firmly. "Keep telling yourself that."
How could it be for the best that Jess was gone, that Jess wanted that, that he wasn't safe with Jess anymore? How could any of it be for the best? She patted his hand, feeling its thinness. "Eat," she said again, and released him.
Illya smiled now, looking out the car window and remembering. He had gone straight to Napoleon's office with the resolve still strong in him; had tapped at Napoleon's door, had told Napoleon he was hungry and couldn't wait till dinner, had watched Napoleon's eyes light up. Within ten minutes they were on their way home, where Napoleon cooked and Illya ate. He had to concentrate on each bite at first, but then after a while he found his appetite - there all the time, it seemed. Napoleon had been so pleased, and Illya did like pleasing Napoleon, so he had suggested a bath, and then suggested more, for the first time in three months. His suggestions had been carried out so pleasantly that it led to even more, in the tub, and then in Napoleon's bed. After that Illya had slept well and when he awoke in the morning he was smiling.
It wasn't over, by any means. Illya missed Jess's company dreadfully. He hung on George shamelessly, demanding to be told, over and over, that George loved him, would never leave him, and George told him, and showed him, and was never ever impatient with him. He took Illya camping three more times that fall and several times a year every year since. That helped, because George loved him and George's love was strong. And George loved him without that; it was possible, still - so he let George make him feel special and he let Napoleon wrap him up in affection and warmth and security. He saw Dr. Ludvic every week for several months, going over it and over it and at some point he was able to laugh again without being coaxed, and sleep in peace, and he realized with pride that despite the grief and the terror and the scenes the bicycle had not left the path altogether.
He had not heard his uncle's voice, had not had a flashback, had not wished he were dead, had not done anything to jeopardize his job - had not even skipped his meals consistently enough to make Dr. Ludvic do more than issue a firm recommendation. He had been able to ask for the help he needed when he needed it, instead of withdrawing into that terrible lonely place. I am better, Illya thought again. I am well. Things may happen to me - sad things, terrible things, who knows - but I am well enough to bear it and that's pretty good considering everything. He found a smile for that little boy. "We do pretty good," he said. "Considering everything."
Now, all these years later, Jess was back. Illya smiled at the joy that brought him, turned in his seat to reach out and lay a hand on Napoleon's leg.
Napoleon was quiet too. The driving was easy, the road clear - Illya was sitting looking out the window, apparently lost in his own thoughts. Napoleon smiled over at him. The past five years had been - after those harrowing months when Illya had grieved himself sick, frightening Napoleon badly - good ones. Once that first terrible time was over Illya had pulled himself together, turned away from his private sorrow and out towards the rest of his life. Their shared life had a rhythm, a sweet deep pulse of its own, the solid underpinning of their days and nights.
Napoleon knew that a great debt was owed to George, who had patiently picked up the greater part of Illya's dependence and neediness. "It's not your place," he'd said when Napoleon had tackled him on the subject. "You weren't there in Moscow. You don't know what it was like dealing with that little boy for hours on end. He adored Coleman. Coleman was like some sort of superhero to him, carrying his gun and sleeping across the door and knowing all the things kids like to do, like watching TV and getting his hair brushed and eating ice cream. Coleman knew just how to talk to him. For Illya to lose him - and over sex of all damn things - terrifies him right down to where that little kid lives. And that little kid isn't your province. He's mine. Let me take care of him."
"Doesn't Mae object? It's worse than it was in the beginning."
"I know." George was silent. It was. Illya called him late at night, sometimes two or three times a night, needing to hear his voice. Needing to hear it right then, incapable again, it seemed, of regarding anything besides that need. He invited George home with him several times a week and George always accepted, always ended up sleeping over. He'd offered to share the bed, but Illya had refused.
"No," he'd said. "Thank you. It's not right to do that with anyone but Napoleon, is it."
"Not as a general rule, no. But you and me - that's different."
"Let me try and do it without. If I really can't I'll let you know." So Illya did it without, and lay awake often and long but stubbornly kept his solitary bed. "You were right all the time," he said another night, curled up against George on the sofa, staring at the fire. "Everything you said - about the rules, about everything - you were right and I was wrong. So I lost him." He put his head down on the arm of the sofa and George held him and didn't know what to say.
"It wasn't your fault," he said finally. "You can't keep blaming yourself. You didn't know."
"I knew what I was doing in the hospital. I knew just what I was doing. I made him want me. I did that on purpose. For one minute there he thought maybe he could, and I guess he never really got over that."
"Well. I think he would have come to it on his own."
"But maybe not. Maybe it never would have happened if I'd been better from the start. If I'd been nicer to Craig. If ..."
"Illya. Stop. There is no point in any of this. It's over. It's sad, it's hard, but it's over. How long are you going to do this to yourself - and to Solo?"
"I know. I know. I can't stop. I can't make my mid stop running over it again and again and again - I'm so tired of it, I'm so tired of thinking about it all the time - but I can't stop it."
"Maybe you need to see Dr. Ludvic again. This seems - this seems excessive."
"How can you say that? How can anything be excessive when Jess used to love me and now he's gone? It's everything I've always been afraid of. What if you left? What if Napoleon did?"
"He won't. And neither will I. Jess and you - that was flawed from the start. You and me - it isn't."
"But even when you promise me, I can hear Jess promising me too and he sounded just as much like he meant it as you do, and I believed him, and now he's gone. It was a promise made to a child, he said. How do I know you won't turn around and look at me one day, look at me coldly and say you've changed your mind too? How do I ever know that again?" His voice was hitching in his chest and he was clutching George frantically now, terrified by the image he'd called up.
"I ought to wash your mouth out with soap," George told him, unclenching Illya's fingers, smoothing them open, patting them, his gentle touch keeping his words from bruising. "How dare you compare me to Coleman? Did I ever try to have relations with you?"
"Did I ever try to get you to cheat on Solo?"
"Did I ever compromise you in public knowing full well that's what I was doing and not caring?"
"Did I ..."
"I get it, George. I'm sorry. You're right."
"Damn straight I am. You offend me, Illya. My own behavior to you is what you should look at, not Coleman's bullshit. You insult my character."
"I'm sorry." And Illya remembered that he couldn't just band aid George's hurt feelings, that he needed to offer something. "I'll go see Dr. Ludvic tomorrow if you think I should."
"Yes. I do."
"All right. I will." He kissed George on the cheek. "I love you, George. I don't mean to insult you. You've never been anything but upright and honorable with me and I am wrong to doubt you."
"Do you have to go home?"
"No, I don't. Got any of that baked chicken Solo puts up for you?"
"Yes. I'll get it." Illya went to make George's dinner and George called Mae and told her he wouldn't be home again that night.
Illya had related the entire thing to Napoleon when he got home the next day. "So I see Dr. Ludvic tomorrow morning," he concluded. "She couldn't today. Do you think she'll be mad at me? She knew Jess before she knew me."
"No. She's your doctor. She's on your side."
"That's what she says. She says she's my advocate."
"And so she is. Illya - I wouldn't mind if I knew you slept with George."
"No, it's not right. I should have followed all the rules before. I'm with you, you're the only one I should be in a bed with. Unless I'm dreaming, but I don't do that anymore."
"Going back to his house finished it for me. I dreamed of that little boy the first night we were home. I held him and told him he was safe and I guess he believes me because he doesn't wake me up screaming at night anymore."
"He's the one carrying on so much for Jess," Illya said then, and Napoleon looked at him.
"So you do know that."
"Yes. But it's still me, Napoleon. It's still my feelings that are hurt."
"I know, sweetheart. I know." He'd held Illya tighter and the next day Illya had gone to see Dr. Ludvic, and that night they had made love, and it had never been as bad after that. Illya had begun eating more, and let George coax him back to the softball team, and back to nights out with his friends. He never went bowling again, but he did ice skate the next Christmas. He took Joan and Katie and Sarah to Rockefeller Centre and they all had a wonderful time.
When a Christmas card came from Jess Illya took it to George. "What does this mean?: It just says 'love Jess'."
"It means he wants to keep in touch with you. You exchange Christmas cards every year and at the least you know where he lives and that he's alive and well. And he knows the same things about you. Now if you choose not to answer it, that tells him something too."
"Oh, no - I'll answer it. I like that he still wants to be - something."
"He's something, all right," George growled. "You coming to church with me again this year?"
"Yes. I already told Napoleon. He'll be home again, too. Isn't that good?"
"Yes, honey, it is."
As the new year moved on, Illya's smile was seen more often. He became absorbed again in work, and as he began to heal he let George go back to his wife and his quiet routine, and if he still mourned for Jess Coleman no one but he ever knew of it.
He and Napoleon drew closer than ever. Napoleon, after examining his past behavior, made a real effort to change; wanting not to grieve Illya any more, not to make him doubt his place in Napoleon's life. Napoleon started out by making an inflexible rule for himself that there was to be no discord his first twenty-four hours home no matter what he had been thinking about while he was gone, and he found to his surprise that without speaking it vanished. Whatever he had been brooding over became inconsequential after they'd been together for a little while and after a year of self restraint Napoleon had stopped brooding altogether. The somberness that had fallen on him with his increased ambition and power lifted, and he smiled more himself.
For their first anniversary Napoleon had the aging Saturn rebuilt and made new for Illya, who was fond of it and had resisted all offers of a new one. For Napoleon's birthday Illya gave a portrait of himself - gave it with embarrassment and self-consciousness. "It seems such a conceited present, Napoleon, but I thought you'd like it."
"I do." Illya had found a portrait painter who had first dressed him in the formal silks and velvets of a Russian prince, and then mussed him up, as if he'd just come from some vigorous outdoor activity. The artist sat him in a big old high backed chair, one knee drawn up, arms around it, smiling right out of the frame; hair tumbled in a brilliant mass down his arms and back, eyes alight with happiness.
"He told me to think of you," Illya explained. "So I did. And notice the cuff links." Napoleon moved in and laughed out loud - his initials, elegantly engraved on the gold cuff links ornamenting Illya's blue ruffled shirt.
"It's wonderful. I love it." He did. He was enchanted with it. "I'll hang it right here, over the fireplace."
"No you will not." Illya blushed at the very idea. "I'd be too embarrassed. Put it in your home office."
"All right. Thank you."
"You're welcome. Happy birthday, Napoleon."
"Thank you. And thank you again for my party." Illya had arranged it and everything was flawless, from the location to the food to the guest list. Illya had dubbed it 'the appropriate party', and had been very serious throughout the planning, to Napoleon's amusement and pleasure. Between Illya's new decorous behavior and the powerful friends he had in James Hercut and Jake Davenport, not to mention Napoleon, Illya's past really did seem to have become no more than that, the past.
He had regained all his cool self possession and more, because it was genuine now and not merely a frozen mask over unacknowledged emotions. And he gave the people still in his life everything he had to give, the need to love as strong and long denied as the need to receive it.
Illya had been grateful for Jillian's warm concern - not knowing what was wrong, she could see plainly that something was. She instructed Napoleon to inform her of his travel plans, and always invited Illya over at least once while Napoleon was away, and more often if it was an extended absence. She called Illya, and emailed him, and it was impossible for Illya not to respond.
"Don't even say it," she said fiercely when he tried to express his appreciation. "You're the best thing to happen to this family in - in forever. You've given me my brother back. I lost him when his job became everything to him. He was a stranger to me. Now he teases me the way he used to and - and cares again. That's all you, Illya. You've been wonderful for him and I'd love you for that alone even if you weren't so sweet that I love you anyway. Look at you!" She pinched Illya's cheek, which was scarlet. "So don't thank me. Can you tell me why you're so unhappy these days?"
"Not really - it's nothing against you, Jillian. It's just not all my story."
"All right." She patted his hand. "I made that casserole you like - please have some."
"I will. I can thank you for that, can't I?"
"Yes, sweetie. You can thank me for that."
Illya had told Napoleon all that, later, and Napoleon had, for once, been speechless. He'd had no idea Jillian had felt that way, but she was right. He had been a stranger to everyone until Illya. Then, with Illya, watching his family receive his partner so wholeheartedly - for his sake, because they didn't even know Illya - made him look at them differently. Seeing Illya bloom within the family circle only confirmed it. He was - they all were - lucky to have one another.
Now, tonight, Napoleon found he honestly did not mind that Jess Coleman was back, or that Illya had been so unabashedly glad about it. It was nice to see that that engaging spontaneity was still there under the new correctness, whatever the cause. It seemed incredible now that he had ever allowed something like Coleman's infatuation to cause problems between Illya and him. Because he and Illya - he and Illya were together. Nothing could touch that. He had been a fool to ever think otherwise. He looked over again and smiled as Illya laid a hand on his leg.
"This is all that matters," Illya said to him, wanting to say it, feeling suddenly that he needed to say it. "This - right here. You and me. Everything else is - frosting." I won't tell Jess he's my frosting though, Illya thought and laughed to himself. He might take it the wrong way. He patted Napoleon.
"Don't feel you have to justify your happiness to me," Napoleon said, still smiling. "I don't grudge it."
"I know. You're so good. And you never once said I told you so. Even though you did."
"That was good of me, wasn't it?" Napoleon returned the pat. "Did you have fun today? Good game."
"Thank you. Yes I did."
"Are you tired?" They were in Manhattan now, picking their way through the late night celebrators.
"Yes - but not too tired to talk, if you want to. If you still have something you want to tell me."
"I do. It won't take long."
"Take as long as you want. You can tell me on the living room floor, in front of the fire, while I'm lying flat on my back on that carpet."
"It'll be hard for you to jump up and down if you're flat on your back."
"Jump up and down? I'll want to jump up and down?"
"Tell me now."
"No." Napoleon laughed at him. "Here we are. You can wait. In fact - I need to shower first."
"Oh." They got onto the elevator and Illya smiled at Napoleon, amused and wondering if he should stir things up himself, or let Napoleon set the agonizingly slow pace. Well, it was Napoleon's news, he would let Napoleon tell it his own way. Illya smiled all the way up to their apartment, and discovered, when they got in the front door, that just that had stirred things up most satisfactorily, and it was the vestibule again after all.
Later they sat on the sofa, both freshly showered and slightly giddy on a couple of glasses of wine. Napoleon was smiling while he combed Illya's hair straight then wrapped it around his fingers, watching the firelight on Illya's face. "Sweetheart," he said and Illya turned to him, smiling too.
"Mr. Davenport has accepted a promotion."
"Oh!" Illya stared at him. "Really? But - he's not leaving, is he?"
"As it happens, no. His new position can be New York based, and that's how he wants it. Why?" Napoleon was amused again. "Would you care that much?"
"Of course I would. I like Mr. Davenport - and he likes me. I hate the thought of breaking in a new Section Chief." Illya frowned. "Why you thought I'd be jumping up and down I can't imagine. Who knows who they'll get to replace him? It will probably turn out to be someone I slept with years ago, or wouldn't sleep with years ago, and he hates me now and it's all to be gone through again. Stop laughing at me!" He hit Napoleon's shoulder. "Shut up. What?"
"Illya - love of my life - you're looking at him."
"Your new Section Chief."
Illya's eyes widened. Then he gasped and threw himself on Napoleon, knocking him backwards, off the sofa and onto the floor. "No! You mean it? You - but ..." he stopped to let Napoleon turn them over, waited while Napoleon adjusted their positions so Illya's head was cradled on Napoleon's arms, so Napoleon was not too heavy, so the firelight was reflecting just right in Illya's hair, and Illya's hair was soft around his face. Illya, amused as always by Napoleon's absorbed and unselfconscious precision, looked up into that beloved face and thought how sweet Napoleon was, and how wonderful he was, and Section Chiefs did not travel very often - Davenport was always here.
"But what?" Napoleon was saying and Illya blinked, trying to remember.
"What? Oh. Yes. I don't want to get too excited and be wrong. Does this mean - does this mean you're staying home more?"
"Yes. It means as of now I am done traveling. For good. The occasional flying trip I suppose, like you, but I'm based here now and here I'll stay."
"But - but I thought you said you were consolidating your position. I thought you wanted all this power and influence from outside the main structure. I thought ..."
"My position was consolidating nicely," Napoleon said, "and this proves it. But do you know what I didn't count on in my master plan?"
"Loneliness." He kissed Illya's mouth. "It was very lonely out there by myself - and I missed you intolerably."
"Surely you know I did."
"You're not doing this for me, are you? You're not - settling - because of me?"
"It's not settling, first of all. It's a great job and I'll love doing it. And it is for you, and for me - for us. For us, Illya. I'm doing it for us. We need to be together. I need to be with you more."
If Napoleon could say it out loud he certainly could. "I need to be with you more, too."
Napoleon kissed him again. "For us. We need to be with each other. I'm tired of going to bed alone, of waking up alone, reaching for you and you not there. I'm tired of kissing you goodbye and walking out the door. I'm not tired of coming home - but now I can do that every night." He smiled down at Illya, letting his own happiness show. "You're not jumping up and down."
"Yes I am. Inside I am. Oh, Napoleon." Illya put his arms around him, held him close, feeling their hearts beating in unison. "Oh, Napoleon. I'm so happy."
"I can't believe they offered it to you - with me, and all."
"Illya - you have become such a model of propriety ..." he kissed Illya's nose. "And you and I are yesterday's gossip."
"I am? I'm a model of propriety?"
"Good. Then no one thinks things about me anymore?"
"Illya - I hate to say this, but the last thing I heard anyone say about us was that we were cute."
"I guess because we've been together all this time, and are still as much in love as ever."
"I know. We are lucky, aren't we."
"Not just lucky. There were a million reasons for us not to be together. We could have chickened out and listened to those reasons any time."
"But we didn't."
"Because we love each other."
"This makes you my immediate supervisor again, doesn't it? Isn't that a problem?
"I spoke with the rest of the Board about that, and the consensus is that if anything comes up that directly involves you, I will recuse myself."
"Well, that sounds appropriate."
"Oh yes. It's all most appropriate. Happy?"
"So happy." He kissed Napoleon's neck. "Yes."
"Good. Me too."
"You're just as happy to be with me as I am to be with you."
"That makes me even happier."
"You saying that makes me happier."
Illya laughed. "Come to bed, Napoleon. Come to bed and let me show you how happy I am."
"And I'll show you something, too." They rose, and went to bed, and spent the rest of the night finding new ways to declare their happiness each to the other, and finally fell asleep, body touching body, breath warm on skin, hands still loosely clasped.
And they lived happily ever after.