To Live A Little
The right side of the desk was piled with print outs. That was the trouble with Braille. It took up so much space, the paper was so thick. A simple report felt like a small novel. He tried to keep each bunch of reports in its separate tray on his desk, but the piles teetered like little monoliths, and if one spilt onto the floor it took far too long to sort it all out again. He thanked god for Sarah. Although it was irritating at times having to rely on a personal assistant, at least she could sort out spills quickly. He hated feeling around for things on the floor.
He sighed and pulled another intelligence report in front of him. His fingers swept over the cover and he felt Napoleon’s name. A little warmth kindled in him. How funny that was, to feel Napoleon’s name, to feel the dots of him under his fingertips, to feel the warm shiver that ran through him when he touched that beautiful combination. He knew the feel of Napoleon’s collarbones, of his broad shoulders, the stubbly line of his jaw, the curves of his ear. He knew the rich, musky scent of him and how his palms fitted perfectly over Illya’s buttocks and how soft his lips were. He had known all that for a long time. But it always gave him a little thrill to run his fingers over that unique combination of raised dots that spelt out his name. It had been worth the tedious weeks and months of learning Braille just for that.
He smiled and turned himself to the rest of the report. Maybe he was getting soft. Maybe that was what it did for a man, not being out in the field. And, oh, he missed it. His heart ached for it. The excitement, the exotic places, the scents and sounds of Morocco, Brazil, of Czechoslovakia, the damp earth smell of the Danube in the winter, the delicate sounds of a cold day in Leningrad. How he missed it all...
The report. Napoleon Solo, Theophilius Dwight. It took him a couple of sweeps of his fingers to read that name correctly. Napoleon had been in Bonn on the trail of a particularly pernicious Thrushie from South Dakota. And he had succeeded, of course, taken him in, alive, and handed him off to U.N.C.L.E. North East. So it was Illya’s job to read through all the details diligently printed off for him by Sarah on the Braille printer and to compile it all into an updated report. It wasn’t exciting, but it did at least give him memories of how life used to be.
He took a piece of paper from the correct file of the correct drawer of the filing cabinet and fed it the correct amount into the typewriter. If Sarah ever misfiled these things he would be undone; but Sarah never misfiled. He could trust absolutely that this piece of paper that he couldn’t see was the precise one needed for this type of report. So he started typing. His touch typing had always been good. It was hard not being able to look back on what he had written, but Sarah checked everything for him and he rarely made mistakes. If he did, she just uncomplainingly got another sheet and copied it out correctly herself.
The door bumped open. Illya closed his eyes and kept his last typed words in his head, and said, ‘Wait.’ He needed to be left alone when he was doing this. He needed to remember what he had just written and think of what he was about to write, and concentrate until he had reached the end. He heard Napoleon – he knew it was Napoleon, oh how he knew it – walk over to his own desk, creeping, almost silent, and Illya kept typing. Then he moaned and dropped his hands.
‘It’s no good,’ he said, lifting his head, turning his ear towards the small and beautiful sounds of Napoleon here, just a few yards away from him. ‘I never could concentrate when you walked into a room.’
Napoleon laughed and came over to stand behind him and put his hands on Illya’s shoulders. He laid a kiss on the top of his head.
‘Never mind, tovarisch,’ he said. ‘I’ll read it back to you and get you back on track. But now, do you have time for coffee?’
Illya smiled. He rolled his shoulder blades and felt his spine pop. Then he stood up and cocked an ear and asked, ‘Are we alone?’
‘Completely,’ Napoleon promised him. ‘I locked the door.’
So Illya turned around and slipped his arms about Napoleon’s waist, and kissed him. Napoleon’s arms enfolded him and the length of his body pressed against Illya’s, their knees touched and their hips touched and Illya’s chest pressed against Napoleon’s beautifully solid chest. His mouth was hot and rich and his taste was so familiar, and Illya ran the tip of his tongue over each of Napoleon’s clean teeth. He stroked a hand over the short hairs at the back of Napoleon’s neck and nuzzled his lips against Napoleon’s throat and gave him light, darting kisses there while Napoleon’s hands brushed through his light hair and sent electricity sparking through him as his fingers traced the nape of Illya’s neck.
Then he leant his head against Napoleon’s shoulder and just stood there, hugging him, taking in the reality of him. He smelt of cigarette smoke and air travel and exhaust fumes, of aftershave and Brylcreem, and fainter behind that there was something spicy, coffee and ginger. He was fresh back from Bonn. His report had preceded him.
‘You’ve been away too long,’ Illya murmured. The scent of Napoleon made a little knife of pain inside him. God how he missed those days. He missed being able to see so hard sometimes.
Napoleon’s hand ruffled the hair at the back of his head, and he kissed him again, long and slow.
‘I missed you too,’ Napoleon said. ‘I always miss you. Will you come for coffee?’
‘The commissary?’ Illya asked, and Napoleon groaned a little.
‘I guess so,’ he said. ‘It’s just it’s hardly private. After a twelve hour flight I need coffee, but I need you too, god, I need you.’
‘Well, then, Vecchio’s,’ Illya said, using the opportunity to nibble at Napoleon’s earlobe. It tasted of salt, and a little of shaving cream. ‘You can have me later, all of me, but for now we can get a little privacy at Vecchio’s.’
‘Vecchio’s,’ Napoleon agreed. There were booth seats and Vecchio knew them too well, and always let them take the one right at the back, shaded by potted plants.
‘Where’s my cane?’ Illya asked.
‘You should chain that thing to your wrist, the amount you lose it,’ Napoleon said affectionately. He gave it to Illya and Illya slipped on his dark glasses, and he took Napoleon’s arm to walk out of the office. That was one good thing about all of this. He could walk around town all day with his arm linked in Napoleon’s, and no one cared. No one told a blind man he couldn’t touch his companion.
So he walked with Napoleon through the echoing corridors of HQ and handed his badge in at reception and followed Napoleon’s arm out and up the stairs from Del Floria’s and into the chill of the streets outside. His cane tapped sharply on the sidewalk, the sound so clear in the crisp cold. The air had that metallic taste of deep winter, and Illya imagined thick, low clouds laden with snow pressing hard against the high rises of the city. He tilted his head and asked, ‘Nimbostratus?’
Napoleon laughed. ‘How did you know?’
Illya shrugged. ‘It feels like snow. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong.’
‘You’re incredible,’ Napoleon said, and Illya felt a small itch of discomfort. He didn’t mind it so much from Napoleon, but he hated it when the women in U.N.C.L.E. cooed over him, about how amazing it was that he could tell them apart just by their voices (as if they didn’t recognise their friends on the phone), that he could make his way from his office and all around HQ without sight (as if they couldn’t walk around their apartments in the dark of night), that he could read those tiny bumps with such fluency (as if he hadn’t spent miserable weeks and weeks and weeks of learning and getting it wrong and getting it wrong again, until finally it clicked.)
At Vecchio’s they sat in their secluded booth seat and it was fine for Illya to lay his hand on top of Napoleon’s on the table, and underneath Napoleon’s knees bumped his and their feet touched toes. All Illya could think about was after work when they could go back to their apartment and be in utter familiarity, where he could walk around and know exactly where everything was, but most of all he would know exactly where Napoleon was, because Napoleon would be underneath him, hot and beautiful and naked, and he would be everything Illya wanted.
‘Are you going to tell me how many bruises you came home with, or will I have to find out later?’ Illya asked. He could always find Napoleon’s bruises. They didn’t feel any different to the rest of his skin, but Napoleon could never hide that minute flinch when Illya passed his fingers firmly over the top of them.
‘Not too many,’ Napoleon promised. ‘Just a few on the ribs, and a big one on my calf where he kicked me. He came in pretty easy.’
He imagined how those bruises would look, little storm clouds over the pink-gold flesh colour of Napoleon’s chest. Under his fingers they would be smooth, just like the rest of him, and Napoleon would wince, and Illya would count his ribs and work out where not to touch him for a while.
‘You didn’t get tied up, hung up, locked up?’
‘Not this time.’
God, did he even miss being hung up by his arms? It was a perverse life, being an agent.
‘Take me with you next time,’ he said impulsively.
‘Illya,’ Napoleon warned.
‘Oh, Napoleon, take me with you,’ Illya said again. ‘I don’t want to come on a mission. I know I can’t. But let me be with you on the aeroplane, in the hotel, in a soft top car from the airport. Take me with you. I’ll rub liniment into your bruises when you get back at night. I’ll – I’ll field your calls and – ’
‘Illya,’ Napoleon said again. ‘You know how dangerous that would be.’
‘I know everything about how dangerous it is,’ Illya said impatiently. After all, how long had he been an active agent? ‘You know that. But I keep up my training. I’m still at the top of the ranks in unarmed combat, and I can strike a mean blow with that cane. It’s reinforced for combat. And I’ve been practising in the gun range, firing at audible targets. I’m getting pretty good. Oh, Napoleon...’
And then he felt it. He felt Napoleon relent.
‘I have an idea,’ Napoleon said, leaning forward, lowering his voice. ‘Listen. I have an assignment in Cairo. It’s not dangerous. It’s mostly eavesdropping. The hotel is secure – twelve stories, manned entry. If we can persuade Waverly – ’ And there was the big stumbling block. ‘If we can persuade Waverly, perhaps you can take that Braille typewriter and stay in the hotel room and monitor the bugs while I’m out on active espionage. I’d need someone to monitor the bugs. I can’t track the guy and listen back at the hotel room at the same time.’
Was it possible? Could it really be possible? Illya let himself believe it. He sipped his espresso and imagined drinking thick Egyptian coffee, imagined stepping from the plane into the heat of the airfield, imagined staying with Napoleon again in an exotic Egyptian hotel. The stumbling blocks were small things. Waverly, and the onerous task of getting to know new surroundings, of learning a new room with a fingertip search, being trapped in one place because he couldn’t see where to go. Small things, they were, against the thought of being in the field, almost, being on a mission with Napoleon again, squeezing into a small hotel bed with him at night and drinking in the bar and eating dubious meals at strange times of day.
‘I could do it,’ he said. ‘I’m better at listening and recording than I ever was. Oh, I could...’
Napoleon’s knees rubbed his under the table. Napoleon put his other hand on top of Illya’s, and pressed.
‘I miss having you out there,’ he said.
Illya missed everything. He missed being able to see Napoleon’s face. He missed running all alone, he missed driving so much, he missed colours and pure light and the graceful ease with which the sighted did everything. He missed feeling so, so alive with the bullets flying over his head. He missed it all. If he let himself think about it it became too much, so he felt Napoleon’s hands instead, felt the little shush of his pulse through his fingertips, took in the delicate scent of him and the small sounds of his breathing. He drained his cup of coffee and felt for his cane, and Napoleon laughed and gave it to him and said, ‘I told you you should chain it to your wrist.’
And he took Napoleon’s arm and walked out into the clamorous New York street, where the chill of winter pressed around him and the light felt thin and pale on his face, and he dared to think that perhaps he might be able to live a little again.
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