I am lying beside Illya in a luxurious hotel suite in Rome. We have made love for most of the afternoon and into the evening - with a stop for dinner, of course. Illya demands to be fed, like an importunate alley cat. He screams like a cat, too, under the right circumstances, and I am devoting myself to providing those circumstances as often as is physically possible. This isn't really such a surprise - I always suspected that Illya would be hell on wheels in bed. The surprises lie in other quarters. He loves to be stroked, even when sexual desire has for the moment faded. He sighs and stretches, turns so my fingers can reach different areas of skin, and sulks if I stop. I only stop to see that sulk, of course, because otherwise I could touch him forever. But it is enchanting when he turns his face away, when that lower lip comes out, and even more so when I grab him, kiss him, cover him with caresses and he laughs at himself and at me, turning to touch me in his turn.
It also surprises me to learn that he is a cuddler. His disdain for physical contact - although that never applied to me, not for a moment - had led me to expect a similar avoidance in bed, except for the necessary, of course. But he turns into my embrace, puts his head on my shoulder, pushing it against me like - again, like a great cat wanting to be petted. He wraps both arms around my waist, drapes his legs over and about my legs and falls asleep like that, smiling like a child dreaming of Santa Claus.
I am delighted to oblige. I trust Illya, so his bodily presence is a comfort to me, a promise of security and protection. I relish the feel of him, the scent of him, the taste of him.
How did we end up here, like this? Me, who has only ever been with women and he, about whose sexual preference I am still in the dark? He can be with women, no question about that, and when he is the women like it - obviously far more than he does, if the interplay I have seen between them is anything to go by. But I have always wondered if he swung both ways, as the saying has it. I can't even put my finger on why, except that his smiles have often appeared rather ambiguous, and his near flirtations with some of the men we have worked with have struck me as out of line. Far out of line. I made the mistake of reproving him for it once - only once - and he turned those blue eyes on me and nearly froze my bone marrow. He said nothing, just turned on his heel and walked away, but the next time we were at a staff meeting together he flirted with me outrageously, batting his eyelashes, sending me come hither smiles, moving so as to accidentally on purpose brush my arm, my hand, my thigh. It drove me crazy which was, no doubt, the intention. I never brought the subject up again.
It was Terbuf, of course, that did it. Before that unofficial affair we were not lovers, and afterwards we are. I am lying here, sated on lovemaking but never on the sight of him, turned towards me so trustingly, smiling in his sleep so contentedly.
We were in Rome at the start of it and that was my doing. I had wanted to spend some off duty time with Illya, wanted to get to know him better when we weren't fighting for our lives. Well, that turned out not quite the way I had expected, but up till that meeting with Clara we were genuinely enjoying one another's company. Illya isn't a good traveling companion in the way people normally mean that. He is irritable and impatient, he complains a lot, and he fixates on the oddest things - an obscure graveyard, an illegible monograph, a trashy gift shop. Once his focus has zeroed in he loses track of time, and interest in anything else - including plans we might have already had. We had missed a night at the opera, and opening day at an art exhibit that way. I could have left him and gone on, of course, and he in fact told me to do so - not very nicely - but I didn't really want to. I like watching him when he doesn't know I am, so I liked seeing his brows furrow and his eyes squint as he tried to read some inscription worn smooth by the passage of time. I liked seeing him pick up some touristy trinket, then discard it self consciously when he saw me looking. I bought it for him as soon as his back was turned and he was taken aback. He tried to make fun of me, tried to brush it off, and, when I only smiled at him and insisted he take it, snatched it from me as if he might toss it into the nearest trash can at the first opportunity. But he didn't. I know this for a fact because I found it tucked into a zippered pocket in his luggage while he was in the shower that night.
He is extremely grumpy when he is hungry, which I knew of course from all those missions together, but I hadn't realized it carried over into the rest of his life. I mean, anybody would be grumpy when locked in a dungeon without food, or even at having to leave a half finished meal to leap into a taxi and chase down some villain or other. But he got just as cranky when breakfast was delayed by fifteen minutes because the elevator was full of tourists checking out. And the night it all started he was positively surly with me, only because it was taking me a little longer than anticipated to find that restaurant I wanted to take him to. "They should put people like that in asylums" he snapped at me when I praised the veal parmesan and I would have laughed outright if I hadn't known it would only piss him off more, and I didn't want to piss him off right then. I wanted to find that restaurant and order the veal, I wanted to pay for what I remembered would be a fabulously expensive dinner, I wanted to watch his face while he ate it. I wanted to do all that for him because he is my partner, and already, after only these months together, the best friend I have ever had. And one of the few things I have learned about him is that being treated by someone else just because they want to see him happy is an entirely new experience for him. Even if all I was doing was bringing an extra bagel by our office, or giving him a ride home when it was raining, it still took him completely off guard, making him blush, making him smile and then, of course, cover it up with a snarky comment about eating my discards, or about the bourgeois trappings of my capitalist lifestyle - i.e., my sports car.
It captivates me. And when vacation time rolled around, I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than spend those seven days catching him off guard over and over again. Which I did right off the bat, with my suggestion.
"Vacation with you?" He blushed, smiled, then curled his lip. It was so predictable that I laughed at him.
"Yes. Rome, to be precise. Just the two of us. No Thrushies hiding under the bed, no heinous plots of world domination. Waverly thinks we need a break after the last several months, and he wants us to take it."
"Oh." He scowled, then, obviously thinking that was too revealing, brought the Ice Prince to the fore instead. "I do not need you or Mr. Waverly to arrange my vacations for me. I know you would far rather take one - or more - of your lovely ladies to Rome. You can tell him you offered, as per his orders, and I refused. Then you can -" I interrupted him, because teasing was one thing but really hurting his feelings was quite another and I had, although I hadn't meant to.
"Mr. Waverly only ordered vacations. Two vacations, for the two of us. Taking them together is my idea."
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because you," he said this very deliberately now, trying to hurt my feelings in return, "aren't interested in anybody's company who isn't opening their legs for you. And I am not." Nothing ambiguous about that statement. He meant it. And now it was me blushing, I could feel it.
"I know you're not. And I'm not as shallow as you seem to think. I enjoy your company. It's relaxing for me to be with you, and not least because I'm pretty sure you won't be poisoning my coffee or sticking a knife in my back or calling our enemies to come get me if I happen to get a little tipsy over dinner."
"Hmph. So you want a bodyguard while you drink wine and pick up girls."
I put both hands on his shoulders and he froze. He always does that, when I touch him, and while in the beginning I thought it was genuine distaste I now know that it is to keep the moment from ending too soon. Illya is susceptible to me in a way that I am sure infuriates him when he thinks about it. It shut his mouth, too, which was my intention.
"Wrong. I want my best friend with me on vacation. I won't be picking up girls. That would be rude, unless you were picking one up too. We'll do the museums and the cathedrals and you can poke your nose" I tweaked it as I said that and the color burned in his cheeks again, "into all the musty old corners you care to. We'll eat at the best restaurants and ... and climb around the Coliseum if you like. Please, Illya? Please say yes?"
He didn't know what to do with that, and in any event was still rendered speechless by my touch. So I released him and stepped back. "Please?" I said again, suddenly uncertain because Illya might well decide to cut off his nose to spite his - and my - face. But he shuffled his feet, looked at them as if the action held great interest for him, and mumbled something.
"Good!" I said heartily, taking it as consent and rejoicing inwardly when he didn't refute me. "I'll pick you up tonight at seven. We're catching a nine o'clock flight from Kennedy."
"You already made the reservations?" He scowled again. "Who's your back up, if I said no? Which I might have done, Napoleon. Don't assume - anything."
"I assume absolutely nothing where you are concerned," I said gently. "And I have no back-up. I would have gone alone and drowned my solitary sorrows in red Italian wine. This is much better. Thank you."
"Well." He shuffled his feet some more then lifted his eyes to mine, fists clenched, shoulders ramrod straight, giving the distinct impression of someone facing a firing squad. "You don't need to thank me. I probably won't be very good company. No one else has ever thought so."
It was such an open plea for reassurance that it was my turn to be silenced for a moment. Then I smiled at him. "I know all about the kind of company you are, Illya. The past several months have shown me. And I like you just fine."
He wanted to look away. I could tell by the tiny involuntary darting motions of his eyes. But he wouldn't. Instead he nodded jerkily. "Well, then, thank you for inviting me." Then he smiled, a full smile that nearly knocked me off my feet. "I'm looking forward to it."
"Me too," I said, and watched him turn and walk away, hurrying a little now. "Me too," I repeated, very softly, and to myself.
Okay. I know that all looks as if I was ready to bring him to bed as soon as we arrived. Looking back on it I wonder at my own obtuseness, but in all fairness how could I be expected to know that I had those feelings for another man? Friendship was what I thought it was, and of course I was right about that. But friendship was all I thought it was, and I couldn't have been more wrong.
And then it all went south. Or east, if you want to be technical about it. The gypsies crowded us, setting off the adrenalin rush, the fight or flight - and then there was Clara.
Clara. What a load of memory that brought down on my head. Clara. We had been together for the first two years I was in UNCLE. She worked for another government agency, which made it nice because her security clearance was high enough that my dating her wasn't an issue, and she would understand my work - the importance of my work. That's what I had thought then, but I was wrong. Completely, totally wrong. She hated my work. She hated the frequent travel, she hated the long days and nights, the lack of schedule, the very nature of it. She said she hated what it did to me, that I was a different man when I was on an active assignment, and another different man in the long hiatuses between missions when I was bored and jittery and `just awful, Napoleon,' she said once, tears in those big eyes. I had embraced her and apologized, for all of it, but I couldn't change it. My work consumed me. It still does. `Do you even like what you do?' she had asked me during another of the endless conversations we had had about the matter. `Do you even enjoy it?'
Whether I liked it or enjoyed it was so far beside the point I didn't know how to answer her. Of course I didn't like being beaten up, or imprisoned, or fed various nefarious drugs. Of course I didn't like the paperwork, the administrative hoops I had to jump through. But it blazed in me, a passion, a dark fire that I couldn't even think of doing without. "That's not the issue," I said finally. "It's necessary. It's important - Clara, you of all people know how important it is. And I need it." This last was an admission I wouldn't have made to just anyone, but I thought Clara would understand.
She didn't. "I want you to need me," she said, and touched me lightly in the way she had, looked up at me in the way she had that made me want to embrace her, hold her against me and keep what we had safe against anything that might threaten it. I did just that, and she accepted it, made love to me and at the end of it all she packed her things and left me.
"I need a man who needs me," she said. "You don't need me. You will never need me. And I can't accept that, Napoleon."
"I need you," I said hoarsely, because it felt like the truth. At that moment, watching her prepare to walk out of my life, I believed that I needed her desperately. "Clara - don't go. We can work this out. I'll try harder. I'll ..." I stopped here because what could I do, realistically? Work less? I could just imagine explaining to Waverly that I was turning down a mission because my girlfriend wanted me around more. He said I was getting a field partner, and that would lighten the paperwork load, of course, but who knew when it would happen and if I would even be able to stand this unknown person. She nodded eagerly.
"I don't want to go, Napoleon. I love you."
"I -" I began and had to stop there because I had never said those words, and I wasn't going to say them now. They would mean too much, promise too much. "I care about you. I need your warmth, your softness, your ... without it, without you, I'm afraid I'll lose my humanity, Clara. If it's just me and the job, what will become of me? I'll be a hard impersonal killing machine, a sociopathic murderer." Those words hurt me as I said them, as if I were dredging them up from the depths of my bleeding soul. I had often looked at long time agents, and seen that they had lost something along the way, something that kept a man ... well, a man. Not a monster, not an appendage to a gun, but a man.
"Then leave your job," she said, and that delicate face was inflexible as steel. "Leave it. There are other things you can do. Quit UNCLE and marry me. That's it, Napoleon. Take it or leave it."
"Clara," I said despairingly. "How can I do that?"
"It's easy. Turn in your notice. Go through whatever deprogramming they'll inflict on you. When it's over, I'll be waiting. We can be married, and make a life for ourselves where you don't have to keep looking over your shoulder, where I'm not alone more than I'm with you. If you need me, truly need me the way I need you to, you'll say yes."
"No," I said and two big tears rolled down her face. I kissed them away. "No. Don't make me choose between you and my work, Clara, because ... because ..."
"Because you choose UNCLE."
"Goodbye, Clara." What else could I say? I didn't need her the way she needed me to, and I wasn't leaving UNCLE to be with her. I watched her go, and set about rebuilding my defensive shell, constructing it out of facile charm and an easy smile, a completely artificial warmth and urbane courtesy. I paid close attention to the various innocents who crossed my path, thinking that that way I would never entirely lose my soul, that a generalized intellectual concern for humanity would suffice to keep me human. And it worked, to a degree. It worked well enough that when Illya Kuryakin entered my life, piercing those defenses effortlessly with his shy smile, his incredibly blue eyes, his strength and that sweetness that only I ever saw; matching me in dedication to the right, concern for the innocents and devotion to UNCLE, I had enough humanity left to see him. Enough humanity to appreciate him, and draw him in to me without even giving him a chance, because my charm is formidable when I choose to focus it on any one person. And Illya proved surprisingly, touchingly vulnerable to me and, even more shockingly, I to him.
Then there was Terbuf. `Oh, you're going to need me,' Illya had drawled after Clara put that sweet little finger kiss to my lips and he was right. I knew he was right at the time, and events only confirmed it. It had been a lonely struggle until he arrived, watching Clara with Vicek - although I am satisfied with myself that my intuition had been right. It may be a husband's privilege to be proprietary, but I couldn't see Clara putting up with that sort of marriage and I had been right, hadn't I. I try not to think about what that bastard must have put her through, holding the man she loved over her head, exercising a husband's privileges - all of them. I am quite sure of that. He was too pleased with himself for it to be otherwise. But I am sure too that when all was said and done Clara felt it well worth the cost. She loves Stefan. She loves him, that weak willed pitiful excuse for a man, who betrayed her along with the rest of us, only to be betrayed in his turn. Do I sound bitter? I'm not, really, because I came out ahead in the end. Here I am, after all, with Illya curled into me, smiling faintly in his sleep; a smile indicative of dreams that are sweet because I am there.
`There is a look on your face that was not there before,' Illya had said before even saying hello. Not that he said hello, you understand, it's just a figure of speech. `What has she been saying to you?' He cared so much, and I didn't see it. All I could see was her. Her and Vicek - Stefan, as I thought then. It didn't fit what I knew of Clara, it didn't make sense. And when it all finally did make sense, and I saw them together for the first time, I knew that we - she and I - had never had a chance. She wants - she needs - a weak man. She needs a man to lean on her, depend on her strength, her drive. She needs to be the one making the decisions, charting the course of their lives together. I would never have fit into that, and she knew it years before I did.
Then Illya came to our rescue, in that absurdly large uniform, sitting in the back seat of the Jeep, with that air he has when playing someone of high rank. He acts as if the rest of the people around him were dirt under his feet, and he must have seen a lot of that in the Soviet Union, to be able to take the role so well. My joy was not all about my own rescue. I had been worried about him, hoping that the scheme I had dragged us into hadn't gotten him killed, and there he was, saving my tail once again. The rest of his plan came together beautifully, a testimony to his organizational and people management skills. Not for the first time I wondered why he lets me be in charge. He could do just fine on his own, and Waverly would probably allow it if he pushed for it. But he seems content to be my partner, letting me give the orders, make the plans and ... sometimes ... boss him around and reprimand him if he doesn't get it exactly the way I had wanted it.
This sounds as if I had had the time or the inclination to ponder our working relationship while on the run. Of course I didn't. But it was on the back burners all the same, as I got onto that boat, which he had arranged, as I watched Emil climb in with us, safe with his vital information, as I watched Clara cradle her husband. `We'll get the chains cut off when we reach Italy', Illya said, in an obvious attempt to offer comfort, and when I turned and looked into his face, there it was. Shining in his eyes, plain to be read on his face. Love. Illya loved me.
Illya loves me. Nothing has ever brought me such joy, such humility, such comfort. Illya is a strong man, a very strong man. He does not need a weakling for a lover, but he understands that we all have times when we need to lean on someone's strength, and that that does not make us ... me ... less of a man. He offered that silent support all the way to Italy, and then heaven only knows what he said to Waverly, but instead of being summoned straight back to New York for a reprimand here we are in Rome again. Here we are, finishing out our vacation together, as if nothing had interfered with it at all.
He offered to go out, that first night, if I wanted to be alone, and I shook my head. That was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be with him, to finally locate that elusive restaurant and watch him eat the veal parmesan - and half of mine, too. I laughed at him when he did so and he gave me a dirty look and ordered dessert. Then we walked back to the hotel in silence. Not an awkward or uncomfortable silence, but the easy, relaxed silence of good friends. No hint of what was to come, just this pleasant stroll along Rome's ancient streets.
In our room I dropped my clothes to the floor and went into the shower. When I came out he took his turn, still without a word being exchanged. But I didn't dress. I stood there and waited for him, thinking about the look in his eyes, the love that I didn't feel I deserved but wasn't fool enough to turn away. And when he emerged from the bathroom, also naked, I opened my arms to him and he walked into them. He rested his head on my shoulder and sighed, a deep, hitching sigh that seemed to come from his very depths. I closed my arms and held him, and he slid his around my waist and held me too.
It could have ended there, I suppose. If things hadn't developed - his thing, and mine. My arousal didn't surprise me, but his did. I hadn't been certain if the love I knew I saw was fraternal only, friendship and nothing more, but the very emphatic erection I felt against my abdomen settled that, and when I bent my head to kiss him he let me.
He let me kiss him, and I let him caress my buttocks, and then we went to bed and proceeded to have our way with one another so thoroughly that sleep was the only possible thing that could happen next. I was so tired that it was a sweet blur of hands and lips and tongues, bodies rubbing against bodies, legs twined around legs and Illya's voice, so loud that I finally clamped my mouth over his, afraid that someone would start banging on the door at any moment. He closed around me then and I lost myself completely - lost, and found in those arms, against that body.
I am holding him now, not wanting to go to sleep but unable to prevent it, reluctant to give up even one moment of this time together. But this is sweet too, this long slow descent into darkness, with him against me, his breath warm on my throat, his limbs splayed out with mine. I kiss him once more and he purrs for me - and I will spend the rest of my life eliciting that sound, that ... I yawn, and pull him closer, and fall asleep myself.