The Safety of Distance
First published in Classifed Affairs 7.
San Pablo del Rio, Mexico
It's so damn hot in here. Stakeouts aren't particularly noted for their comfort, but we've managed to do better than this in the past. The temperature outside is over ninety, and the temperature inside feels like it's over a hundred. I'm sitting by the window, back from it a little, of course, using the silencer on the end of my gun to hold the curtains aside just far enough for me to peek through. The sun comes blazing in, bright enough to fry your eyeballs. I'm wearing sunglasses to make the glare a little more endurable, but I don't like them. It bothers me to know that my vision is hampered, even slightly. I need all my senses on alert right now. But it's either wear shades or risk a pounding headache from squinting into the brightness, and a headache would distract me even more. I don't need distractions.
Of course, I already have one.
He's lying on the bed under the lazily rotating ceiling fan, the room's only source of air circulation. When we first settled in here he tried to adjust the fan's speed, but the switch was broken, so using it to find relief from the heat is roughly equivalent to curling up in front of a lit match on a cold winter's night. I can see the dark patches of sweat on his white shirt. He has to stay dressed since we don't know when we might have to swing into action, and of course he's wearing his shoulder holster and gun. But he's loosened his tie until the knot hangs about six inches below his collar, which is unbuttoned. He's also unzipped his fly. I get a glimpse of white cotton against the black of his pants.
He's asleep, I think. His left arm is thrown over his eyes and his right hand rests on his belly. He's got one leg drawn up at the knee. His soft, full lips are parted slightly, his mouth open just a bit. I imagine myself walking over there, straddling him on the bed, pulling him up to sit between my legs, guiding my cock between those lips, feeling them close tight around me, watching them move up and down, faster and harder. They feel like warm, wet velvet pulling at me. When I start to come, they don't let go.
I told him I'd watch while he got some sleep. That was the least I could do, of course, since this whole thing was my idea. He doesn't even want to be here. He knows we'll both catch hell from the Old Man if he ever finds out about it. He also knows that I'll take full responsibility. But that's not why he came with me. He's here because he won't let me take on something like this without backup. I laid down the law to him, of course. I lectured and threatened and promised to truss him up like a Christmas goose if he even thought about going with me. He just stuck his chin out, stared back at me with those eyes like blue ice and said, "If you are quite finished, we should be going."
So we went.
The hell of it is that he doesn't care about any of this. I can't imagine going through what they did to him and not caring about evening the score. I'd want to make them suffer as much I had. I'd want to make them bleed just as bad. I wouldn't actually do it, because it's not worth the risk just for myself. But he's worth it.
In his case, though, not only would he not do it, he doesn't even want to. And it's not because he's some kind of saint. Far from it, believe me. He just doesn't believe that personal pain and suffering is that important. As long as you live through it without permanent physical damage, it doesn't amount to much. The important thing, to him, is survival. It's that damn Slavic fatalism of his, and sometimes it makes me want to strangle him. I want to tell him to get madder than hell, to get furious, to stop being so damn stoic.
But maybe he figures I'm mad enough for the both of us.
The street outside is almost empty. It's the middle of the afternoon, siesta time, and most people are taking advantage of the chance for a nap. Including my partner, as I said before. I wish to God I could forget this whole business and join him. It's too hot in here for me to sleep, but I could just relax for a while next to him and listen to his breathing. It's never too hot or too anything for him to sleep. He's like an animal—give him a little protected space and he'll curl up tight in it and turn himself off. But he can also turn himself back on again the instant he has to, like the sleeping dog that leaps away from the moving car just a second before it touches him. It's funny, because when we're not working, he has a wide lazy streak. He hates to get up in the morning. More than once, I've known him to get up on a day off, yawn his way through breakfast, and then go right back to bed, saying he's still tired. Sometimes I used to go with him. He's not always as tired as he thinks.
I hear him sigh. He shifts on the bed, turning onto his side until his back is toward me. The back of his shirt is clinging to his thin shoulder blades. It's soaked with sweat, and so is the part of the sheet he was just lying on. The seat of his pants is stretched tight over his ass. Everything's changed these last five months, except the way he can make me ache without even trying.
I remember how many other days and nights we've spent in rented rooms like this—well, usually they're a little better than this, thank God—on assignment; between assignments; sometimes, rarely, on vacation. In the early days, it used to drive me crazy because I wanted him so much. I used to go out and pick up women almost every night to take my mind off him. Sometimes we even picked up women together. I still don't really know if he did it just because I did, or because he really wanted to, or because he was trying to convince me or himself or the women that he was normal. I never saw him fail to perform with a woman, but I never saw him look exactly thrilled about it either. The night in Belfast when I caught him looking across the room at me while he was humping away atop a pretty redheaded barmaid was the last time we ever went prowling together. When the girls left, I joined him in the shower and after that there didn't seem much point in kidding ourselves anymore.
I haven't told him yet, but after this is over I'm leaving. I've already got my letter of resignation written and signed. It's at home in the drawer of my nightstand. That would have been the last place I'd have chosen to hide something from him once, but now I don't have to worry about him finding it there. He hasn't been inside that bedroom in months. Which, when you get right down to it, is why I'm leaving.
But I'm not leaving until my work is done
I don't think he'll be surprised. This has been hell for both of us. I know him much too well not to see that he hurts as much as I do, even though I doubt if anyone else has noticed much difference in him. Most people seem to think he has no feelings to hide, which can be convenient, I guess. I know it's written all over me. I've heard the whispered speculations, the abruptly ended conversations when I walk into a room at headquarters. They don't know the reason, but they know I seem likely to fly apart at any minute.
Sunglasses or no sunglasses, I'm starting to get a headache anyway. The strain of watching and waiting is getting to me and there's a pain starting in my neck. My gun feels hot and sticky in my hand, and my fingers are cramped around it. I switch it to my left hand for a moment and flex my right to work out the kinks. I hate having to mop my face with my shirtsleeve, but my handkerchief is soaked. Our friends are still nowhere in sight. The street is deserted except for a skinny black cat stalking down the middle of it. That makes me smile for the first time since we've been here. We're all destined for bad luck today, but I intend to see to it that Cameron and Jorgensen have the worst.
He changes positions again, rolling over onto his stomach. This heat is not conducive to restful sleep, even for him. His golden bangs are damp and plastered to his forehead. I used to wash his hair for him sometimes. He'd close his eyes and lean against me in the shower and let me do it. I knew he would have almost died before he'd let anyone else do something like that for him. He's always been so adamant about not letting people get that close. The times he's spent in hospitals, powerless in the hands of doctors and nurses with their thermometers and IVs and bedpans, were as much torture for him as the circumstances that put him there. But I used to wash his hair for him. Sometimes I'd hum a few bars of "Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" just to see him roll his eyes.
Seventeen months. That's longer than some marriages, these days. We never talked about when it might be over, or why. In this line of work, there's not much point in speculating about the future. It's bad luck to make plans too far in advance. So the day Waverly called us into his office and told us the news was the first time I'd really considered how it might be. I'd thought about him dying—every day I'd thought about that—and in my less secure moments I'd even thought about him just getting tired of me and wanting out. But I'd never thought about us being forced apart like that. I may have had some subconscious romantic notion that we were more important to each other than U.N.C.L.E. was to either of us, and that if it ever came to a choice we'd both quit before we'd give each other up. Too bad we weren't given a choice.
The KGB had pictures, the Old Man said, and I could see the faint disgust in his eyes as he looked at us. He hadn't known before. I didn't think anyone had. I still don't know where the photos came from. We've never failed to check a hotel room for surveillance devices, and I couldn't recognize anything in the pictures except us. That was familiar enough.
At the first mention of the KGB, my fearless, lethal partner's face went ashen. He turned away from Waverly's accusatory glare to look out the window, sparing barely a glance at the photographic evidence on the table in front of us. I knew right then that whatever else Waverly had to tell us would not surprise him.
"You must have known, Mr. Kuryakin, into what a grave position this—indiscretion—would place U.N.C.L.E. I can only assume that you didn't care. I realize Mr. Solo must shoulder a great deal of the blame as well, but he at least has no personal knowledge of the methods commonly put to use by your former employers. Your actions reflect a level of carelessness and a lack of circumspection of which I would not have believed you capable. They are inexcusable."
"Yes, sir." His voice was barely more than a whisper, and he didn't take his eyes away from the window.
I felt the pit of my stomach grow cold. "Sir, if we're being blackmailed—"
"We are, Mr. Solo, thanks to you and Mr. Kuryakin and the regrettable lack of control the two of you seem to have over your baser impulses. The KGB is demanding that Mr. Kuryakin be returned to the Soviet Union to face charges on grounds of sexual deviancy and immorality. If we refuse, they are threatening to expose you, Mr. Solo. I must admit, I think they're overplaying their hand a bit. They have exposed you already, to me, and there is no one else in U.N.C.L.E. North America with authority over you. I believe they expect me to, ah, terminate you. You are aware, of course, of the increasingly strained relations between their agency and ours."
I was aware of it, all right, but I only half heard him. My mind had frozen after the part about him being sent back to Russia. I wasn't an expert on the workings of the KGB, but I knew what the penalty was for their agents engaging in "sexual deviancy and immorality" outside the boundaries of what was required for the job. The fact that he was no longer one of their agents was, apparently, immaterial.
"Sir, you can't—"
"I am not anxious to lose my CEA, Mr. Solo, no matter how execrable his judgment in personal matters. However, neither can I risk having your predilections become public knowledge. A Chief Enforcement Agent known to indulge in homosexual affairs would hardly be taken seriously, and your having any future as my successor would be out of the question. You could not hope to be effective when dealing with heads of foreign governments, many of which are even less tolerant than our own, with this"—he gestured to the pictures—"hanging over your head."
To hell with me! I wanted to shout. What about him?
He broke in suddenly. "Mr. Waverly, this is not Napoleon's fault." The next words sounded as though they were being dragged from him by force. "I—I am willing to take all the responsibility for—"
I rounded on him. "The hell you will! You know as well as I do—"
"Gentlemen!" Waverly tapped loudly on the table with his pipe. "I have absolutely no interest in discovering which of you initiated this—state of affairs." His voice was acid. "As senior agent, the majority of the responsibility rests with Mr. Solo. However, that does not alter the fact that your position is the graver one, Mr. Kuryakin. As you must know but seem to have forgotten, death is not an unusual punishment for convicted violators of your homeland's code of morality. And since you are a former KGB agent, that agency would appreciate a chance to make an example of you. It would remove any doubt that the KGB is lenient toward its own members' failings, despite their approval of such activity when it occurs in the line of duty."
My partner was staring directly ahead now. His hands gripped the edge of the table as though it were the only solid object in a world spun suddenly out of control. I felt my insides twist. I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the incipient nausea.
The Old Man sighed. "I am still pondering this matter, gentlemen. It obviously has repercussions far beyond your own personal lives. When I have come to some decision as to the course of action we must take, you will be informed. Until then, you are both suspended from duty."
We went straight home—well, to my apartment. We must have looked like zombies walking through the corridors at headquarters side by side, as usual, but without speaking, without looking at each other. My hands were so cold I actually had trouble unpinning my badge to give it to Peggy at reception. I know Del Floria must have wished us a good evening as we went out through the tailor shop, but I didn't hear him. In the car, we still didn't talk. There would be more than enough to say when we got home.
When we were finally inside, with the alarms set and the security system operating and, if there was a God in heaven, no hidden cameras, he collapsed on the couch, looking at that moment as if he would have gladly shot himself. Even then, at the worst possible time, I felt an odd sense of pride that he was letting his feelings show so blatantly on his face. He would never have done that with anyone else.
I sat down next to him, started to put my arm around him, and drew back, not quite knowing why. He noticed, and looked away.
After a long moment, he spoke. "I convinced myself that we were safe. I wanted to believe that we could protect each other, as we always have done. I deluded myself... But still, I knew."
He laughed softly, bitterly. "The lies one tells oneself, to keep the fear and the guilt away."
I touched him then, running a hand down his tense back, feeling the slightly raised scars under the thin shirt. I knew them all by heart.
"I'm a pretty good liar myself," I said quietly. "And they were easy lies to believe. We've always come out ahead in the end. That can give you a feeling of invincibility. You start to feel that you can't lose. Hubris. All heroes have a tragic flaw, don't they?" I tried to smile, but he wasn't looking at me.
He got up and went to the window. It's made of bulletproof glass, so I feel fairly safe leaving the curtains open at night. The lights of Manhattan were in full blaze. They shone off his hair, turning the gold to silver.
"My former employers have a grudge against me." He hesitated. "I wanted to leave them, leave Russia. Of course, they refused to allow it. They said I was too valuable to them. But our Premier owed Mr. Waverly a favor, and when he indicated an interest in recruiting me for U.N.C.L.E., my superiors were pressured to go along with it. They permitted me to go, as long as I remained a Soviet citizen and as long as I agreed to consider myself still subject to Soviet law. I was perfectly aware that Soviet law prohibits the particular pleasures to which I have felt drawn since childhood. I told myself I could resist my—desires. The first time I ever had sex with a man—in Paris, when I was at the Sorbonne—I promised myself it would never happen again." There was the faintest undertone of amusement in his voice. "So you see, I have been an accomplished liar for many years."
He drew a long, shuddering breath. "But—we always checked every room we stayed in. We have always been so careful in public. I don't understand how..." He trailed off, shrugging helplessly.
I looked down at the floor. "Why didn't you tell me I could be putting your life in danger?"
He didn't turn around. "Would you have ever touched me if I had?"
I sighed. "Of course not."
There was a long silence, during which I tried to force away the panic I felt and think rationally. There had to be a way.
I looked up, startled by the pleading in his tone.
"I would never have endangered you, either, if I had thought—if I had ever let myself believe that this could happen." He was facing me now, and in the light from the window, I could see him swallow. "But I have." His eyes slid away from me to focus somewhere on the other side of the room. "If you hate me now, I can understand—"
"Dammit, Illya, I don't hate you! I'm not a teenager; I knew what I was doing. I knew what might happen to my career if we were ever found out. We're talking about your life, not my job! I can get another job if I have to." I felt a sudden pang at the thought of having to, but I disregarded it.
"Napoleon, I know how much you love U.N.C.L.E. You cannot pretend not to care—"
"Shut up!" I almost shouted the words, and he turned back to me, staring. I didn't care. I took a deep breath. Not that much.
My fists were clenching and unclenching. "There's got to be some way we can convince the KGB to back off. Maybe if they thought I coerced you—"
"Will you be reasonable? I'm your superior. If we told them—"
"No one who knows either of us would believe that. That you would ever coerce anyone, or"—he sighed and slumped down into a chair—"that I would have to be coerced."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You must know what everyone at headquarters thinks of me." He rested his head against the back of the chair and stared at the ceiling. "They may not know about us—yet—but they would have little difficulty believing that I would willingly sleep with any man who made me an offer."
I looked away from him. "That's ridiculous."
"Yes, but people believe it."
"Just because you've never gone out with a lot of women—"
"Napoleon, since I left Russia I have turned down almost every woman who has shown an interest in me. Those I have not turned down have been, I believe, somewhat less than overwhelmed by the results. In fact, the results were usually achievable only through employment of my very fertile imagination." He actually smiled a little. "The point is, people assume, rightly, that I'm homosexual and they believe that homosexuals are promiscuous. So you would have had no need to coerce me, even had you been inclined to. Therefore, your idea is untenable as well as compromising to you."
"Well, then there must be something else we can do...."
We went round and round for what seemed like hours. Finally, we were too exhausted and too sick of the whole thing to continue when we were getting nowhere. We fell quiet, and the silence stretched out. It was past time for dinner, and neither of us had eaten. But the thought of food left me cold, and I wasn't too surprised when he shook his head at the mention of it. Which left only one thing—bed. In spite of everything, I wanted him so much I could taste him. But that was crazy.
"Illya, I don't think you should stay here tonight. Things are already bad enough—"
He nodded quickly. "Yes, I'll go home." He stood up, shying away from the hand I held out to him. He looked as beaten as I felt.
I tried to smile as I walked him to the door. "We'll talk more about this tomorrow. Nothing's ever as black as it seems." I squeezed his shoulder as he left. Just like a best buddy.
But we didn't talk more about it. When I went downstairs the next day and knocked on his door, there was no answer. Later I tried calling him, once on the phone and once on the communicator, but couldn't reach him either time. And by that time, I was starting to feel oddly reluctant to see him anyway. I couldn't imagine what ideas we could come up with that we hadn't already rejected, and the thought of hashing it all out again made my head ache. And it wouldn't do us any good if anyone saw us together while we weren't on duty.
I just wanted the whole thing to go away. I wanted to stop feeling sick to my stomach every time I thought about what could happen to him. I wanted to go back to work and not have to worry about what the rumor mill was grinding. I wanted to wake up to feel his sleeping breath on me, his skin against mine, and know that it had been just another nightmare, that nothing had changed after all. Most of all, I wanted to erase, rip out, annihilate that tiny thorn of resentment that kept prickling me, and the sour wave of guilt that kept following it.
Waverly contacted us on the second day. He'd reached a decision, and we were to meet him in his office to hear it.
Once again, he wasn't home when I went by his apartment. I went into headquarters alone. I made my way to the Old Man's office alone, wondering when the labyrinth of corridors had stretched out to ten times their usual distance.
They were seated at the conference table when I got there, Waverly shuffling papers and fussing with his pipe, my partner staring out that damned window again. He didn't look up when I sat down beside him. I didn't know where he'd been for the last two days, but he didn't look as if he'd spent the time sleeping. I tried to touch his hand under the table, just the briefest of reassurances, but he pulled it away before I could.
"Gentlemen, I have managed to reach a compromise of sorts with the KGB," Waverly began, settling the papers at last and laying his pipe aside. "I hope you both realize the effort this took. Your former colleagues are not the most amenable of negotiators, Mr. Kuryakin."
Neither of us said anything.
"Hmph. I am not entirely happy with our solution, but it appears to be the best I can do. Mr. Kuryakin, you will not be returned to the Soviet Union for trial."
I heard a muffled gasp of relief and wasn't sure which of us had uttered it. I turned to grin at him, but his eyes were fixed on the Old Man.
"With considerable difficulty, I was able to convince them that such punishment was unwarranted. You have, after all, been a superb addition to this organization and with the exception of your unfortunate personal proclivities, your behavior has been at all times above reproach. However, they insisted that you be prevented, to the best of our ability, from indulging those proclivities in future. Obviously, that is not entirely possible. I cannot control every detail of my agents' personal lives." He sounded regretful. "But I was able to offer them a—sop, as it were."
He paused a moment, looking down again at the papers. "Mr. Kuryakin, as of now, you are no longer assigned to Section Two. You have been permanently reassigned to Section Eight, where we will be able to take full advantage of your scientific talents. I very much regret losing you as a field agent; you were among the finest I've ever had the pleasure to know. But I consider it a victory that they agreed to let you remain with U.N.C.L.E. in any capacity. To have pushed for more could well have provoked a very unpleasant international incident."
"Mr. Solo, please let me finish. As for you, you may consider yourself relieved of your duties as Chief Enforcement Agent—at least temporarily. For the next year, you will be reduced to the status of merely another field agent. You will be assigned a new partner immediately. At the end of a year's time, I hope matters will have cooled off enough to risk reinstating you, although of course there can be no guarantees. In the meantime, we will have to get by with a replacement. I'm still considering my options in that area. Of course, it should go without saying that you are no longer in line to succeed me as Number One, Section One."
He paused, and I couldn't hear a sound except the pulse pounding in my ears. I didn't dare try to speak for fear that I couldn't.
"Gentlemen, look at me, both of you."
"There is one more condition, one which I consider fair. Neither of you is to have any contact with the other, except on a strictly professional basis, from this time forward. You are unlikely to have much reason to see each other, what with Mr. Kuryakin spending almost all his time in the lab, but occasional contact in the line of duty will have to be permitted. Apart from that, however, I expect to receive no reports that you have been seen together. You will both, of course, be kept under surveillance."
I could feel all the blood draining out of my face.
"I want the two of you to keep in mind that we must continue to tread very cautiously here. This entire situation must be kept as quiet as possible. Your coworkers will be told only that your status has changed due to unspecified disciplinary problems. I realize this will not prevent gossip, but that seems to be the best we can do. I have had the incriminating photographs burned, but the KGB retain the negatives. If these strictures are not adhered to, there could be very serious consequences. Please don't believe yourselves to be out of danger."
We left the Old Man's office together, walking past Lisa, who ducked her head quickly as we went. My mind was whirling. I had to talk to him; I had to tell him—what? I didn't even know.
The corridor was empty when we reached it, and I grabbed his arm, spinning him around to face me. "Illya, we have to talk—"
"No!" he hissed in a whisper. "It's not safe!" His eyes went to the security camera high on the wall above us.
"Then my office—"
"Don't be such a fool! Do you imagine he hasn't already had both our offices wired?"
"Goddammit, we can't just leave it like this!"
"We seem to have no choice." His voice was suddenly incredibly weary. I started to reach for him again, but stopped awkwardly at the same time as he backed away from me.
"Please, Napoleon," he said very softly. "Just let it be."
I watched him walk away down the corridor alone, squaring his shoulders as he went.
He was right, of course. I couldn't touch him, couldn't exchange any but the most innocuous words with him, without placing his life and what remained of my career in peril. Paranoia is an occupational hazard in this business, but I'd never been on such intimate terms with it as during those five months between our enforced separation and the day we left for Mexico. Every time I saw him at headquarters, I found my eyes first roaming over him hungrily and then darting away to examine the immediate area for cameras and curious onlookers. He was even more cautious. I don't think he met my eyes once during those five months until that last week. On the rare occasions when we did have legitimate business to discuss, he always stood a good six feet away from me to do it. At home, it was even worse. I was sure our apartments were wired by now. Maybe the whole building was. I'd always considered it a big advantage that we lived in the same building, only a few floors apart, but now I found myself almost afraid to leave my apartment in case we might run into each other. When we did, I simply nodded and got away from him as quickly as possible, before I could give in to the desire to either smash my fist through a wall in frustration or pull him against me and never let him go.
He started getting thinner and thinner. I saw him in the commissary once, eating alone, mechanically raising a sandwich to his lips and following it with a sip of coffee. His eyes were fixed on the wall opposite him, and he ate as though by rote, as if he couldn't taste the food. It was so unlike him to look as if he wasn't enjoying a meal that I stared for longer than I meant to. His face looked pinched, and there were dark smudges under his eyes. He looked up at me suddenly, and I dropped my gaze and turned away. After that, I never saw him there again. He must have started eating at his desk in the lab.
On top of everything else, there was Ian White, my new partner. He was a very competent agent, a fine shot, almost as good a negotiator as I was, a perfectly affable guy, and I hated his guts. He knew it, too. White was new to U.N.C.L.E. North America, having just been transferred from our London office, and he had no idea what he was walking into. He must have felt like a substitute taking over from a beloved schoolteacher, unable to do anything right. White's crimes were manifold. He was guilty of not being able to read my mind in the field; not knowing automatically which role to take in any confrontation; not finishing my sentences for me and letting me finish his for him; not being just bitingly sarcastic enough to keep me on my toes without making me lose my temper. I'm sure he wondered just what the hell was wrong with my attitude. I would have felt sorry for him if I hadn't been so miserable and so consumed with emotion over his predecessor.
I knew the gossip must have been driving him crazy. It was driving me crazy, and he'd always been so private. No one knew for certain what had happened between us, or what "disciplinary problems" we'd given Waverly, but the rumor mill thrived as never before. I heard the whispers, and ignored them with my fists clenched. There was nothing I could do about it, even though I knew the more talk there was, the more dangerous it was for both of us. And I was right, but not quite in the way I expected.
The day I went down to the lab to see him, I was already in a bad mood. That was becoming pretty much a constant in my life, but it was worse that day because the following morning I was leaving with White for an assignment in Bolivia. The thought of spending any more time with my unfortunate new partner who could never be what I needed him to be was grating. On the other hand, seeing my old partner before I left put me into a confused state of mingled pain and happiness. It always hurt to see him now, to watch him keep his distance from me, to see his eyes avoid mine. But I missed him so much by that time that I was willing to take anything I could get, even if it was just hearing his voice while we talked about the concoction he'd cooked up for White and me to use on the Bolivian mission, some chemical cocktail that was supposed to induce docility in even the most recalcitrant subject. I'd finally gotten past the guilty resentment that I'd felt toward him for a while and which I hadn't been able to even admit to myself that I had. Now I was left with just the emptiness and the desperate, helpless desire to go back to the way it used to be, when we could talk and joke and work and sleep together and know that neither of us wanted anything else.
So I was half-reluctant, half-eager as I walked into our Research and Development section early that afternoon. I'd deliberately chosen that time of the day because it was when the fewest people would be in the lab; most of them would be at lunch, and we'd have at least a little more privacy. I saw to my satisfaction that I'd been right—the place was deserted except for the man I'd come to see. He was perched on a high stool in front of a microscope at one of the long tables, staring intently through the eyepiece and oblivious to my presence in the doorway behind him. He manipulated the dial on the side of the instrument as he adjusted the focus. I leaned against the door, watching those deft fingers and remembering.
But while I watched he lifted his head and sighed, stretching slightly. As he did so, I saw his right hand go to his back, which he touched gingerly, as though it were painful. Then he slid slowly off the stool, put his glasses in the breast pocket of his lab coat, and turned around, stopping abruptly when he saw me.
"Napoleon," he said flatly.
I smiled as nonchalantly as I could. "Hi, there. We had an appointment, remember? To discuss the SB307?"
He exhaled a long, tired breath. "Yes, I remember."
I noticed that he looked decidedly haggard, as though he desperately needed rest. His face was as pale as I had ever seen it, and the hand that pushed the bangs back from his eyes appeared to tremble a bit. I was amazed that he could look in worse shape after five months in the lab than he had when experiencing the myriad hazards of fieldwork.
"You look like hell."
He shot me a withering look, so pleasantly familiar that I might have grinned if I hadn't been so worried about him.
"Thank you for your honest assessment. I will get my notes."
He headed toward the room at the back of the lab where his cubicle was, and I could tell he was walking stiffly and limping a little.
He came back with a sheaf of papers, which he proceeded to spread out on the table in front of me. I barely glanced at them, knowing they'd be covered with what to me were impenetrable notations and formulas. Whatever I needed to know about SB307, he'd have to tell me in English.
He did tell me in English, but I was so busy noticing the exhaustion in his voice and the unsteadiness of his hands as he pointed to the notes that I hardly heard him.
"And as you can see, one of the salient properties of the substance—"
"Illya"—I grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him to face me—"what's wrong with you?"
Automatically, he slipped free of my grasp and stepped back.
"Nothing is wrong with me," he said tersely. "I am simply tired, that's all. If you cannot stop dwelling on the state of my health, I will have one of the technicians explain this to you later. I'm too busy for—"
His eyes snapped. "There is always that possibility. However, it is not a matter that warrants discussion at the moment."
"Have you been to the infirmary?"
"No!" The word practically exploded from his mouth. He looked briefly shocked at the force of it.
He went on, clearly struggling to keep himself under control. "I told you, there is no need for that. I appreciate your concern, but it is unjustified. I'm fine, Napoleon. Don't worry about me."
"I'll always worry about you," I said, and stopped, mindful of eavesdroppers. There was an awkward pause.
He turned back to the notes. "We must finish this. You need the information."
I sighed and tried to listen to the rest of the lecture. Whatever the problem was, I knew nagging him about going to the infirmary was pointless. He had never willingly gone to a doctor in all the years I'd known him. I'd just have to send the doctor to him.
Finally we were finished, and he gathered up the papers, tapping them on the table to straighten them. I turned away reluctantly and started toward the door.
I stopped and turned around. "Yes?"
He was standing with his back to me. "You and White are leaving in the morning, are you not?"
"At eight o'clock."
"I've heard he is a good man."
I hesitated. "He is." Well, it was true, even if I hated to admit it.
His voice sounded strained. "He looks after you, yes?"
I coughed once, to loosen the knot forming in my throat. "Illya, when have I ever needed looking after?"
He didn't reply, and I left him standing there facing the wall.
Before I left the office that evening, I had a talk with Dr. Bill Matthews, head of our medical division. I knew my stubborn ex-partner trusted him as much as it was possible for him to trust any doctor, since Matthews had once personally nursed him through a serious case of pneumonia while I was out of the country. He had an easygoing, non-peremptory way about him that made him easy to like. I arranged for Matthews to "accidentally" bump into his quarry the next day, make a fuss over his alarming appearance, and order him to the infirmary for a complete physical immediately. He would have one hell of a furious Russian on his hands, but Matthews was one of the very few people I knew other than myself who could deal with that. He wasn't to mention that I was behind it all, of course, though I had no doubt it would be obvious enough after our conversation in the lab. Too bad. He needed medical attention, and if this was the only way he would get that attention, so be it. At least this way I could leave with a clear conscience.
The Bolivian affair turned out to be a piece of cake. The political situation had largely stabilized by the time we got there, there was no sign of THRUSH activity, and we spent most of the seven-day mission attending diplomatic banquets. The SB307 never made an appearance. I was bored stiff and even shorter with White than I had been on our previous two assignments. I could see that he was getting pretty fed up with me, and I half-expected him to request a new partner when we got home. Well, he could go to hell.
I didn't contact Matthews. I thought it was too big a risk to appear too interested in my ex-partner's health, and besides, there was nothing I could do about it from South America. But the day we got back, as soon as the debriefing was over I headed for the medical section.
Matthews greeted me heartily and invited me into his office. He offered me some coffee, asked me about the Bolivian assignment, and noted that I looked like I could use a little sleep. I finally had to interrupt him in mid-sentence.
He stopped talking, leaned back in his chair, and sighed.
"Napoleon, that was one of the least pleasant experiences I've had in a long time. I thought he was going to pull a blade on me when I told him he had to undergo an examination. I'd hate to see how he treats doctors he doesn't like." He cocked an eyebrow at me. "He knows it was your idea, of course. I didn't let on, but the first thing he said—well, after treating me to a string of foreign expressions which I assume were not benedictions—was "Damn Napoleon Solo to hell!"
I smiled weakly. "That's my pal Illya."
Matthews' eyes grew serious. "I did determine what the problem is—the main problem, anyway, besides general depression, emotional strain, exhaustion, poor diet, and probably drinking a little too much a little too often. The drinking and the poor diet have showed up before in his file, as they have in yours; I realize those are common enough habits in the life of a field agent. But the emotional problems have not, except occasionally immediately after a tough mission." He gave me a sharp look. "I daresay I'd find similar symptoms if I were to check you out. I don't know exactly what happened between you two, but the breakup of your partnership and the strain I've seen between you since then hasn't done either of you any good, believe me."
I'd had enough psychoanalysis. "Bill, you said you know what the problem is. Are you going to tell me or do I have to use truth serum?"
He looked down at his desk, then raised his head and met my eyes squarely. "Illya was sexually assaulted recently."
For a moment, my brain seemed paralyzed. "Sexually—"
"Forcibly sodomized. Probably a couple of days before the exam. Of course, he wouldn't give me any details about when, where, or who. In fact, he absolutely refused to discuss it at all."
The day before I talked to him in the lab?
"He had a lot of bruising on his back and lower body. Someone apparently didn't want it to show." He hesitated. "They—well, they were pretty rough with him. There'd been a lot of bleeding. I think they must have caught him by surprise; I know he can fight like a wildcat, but he had no bruises or swelling on his hands, so I don't think he was in a position to resist. He may have been rendered unconscious first, but if so, it was probably done with drugs. There was no indication of head trauma."
I couldn't speak. I could feel my eyes blinking rapidly.
Matthews spoke softly. "Napoleon, as you can imagine, he was absolutely livid about my finding out. He has a privacy fetish like I've never seen in my life. You're the only person I know of that he trusts completely." He favored me with an oddly penetrating look, and I wondered vaguely just how much he suspected. "Whatever happened to damage your friendship, I think you should try to put it aside for now and see if you can help him. I've stitched him up and treated his contusions, but that's the least of it. I'm sure he'd rather die than admit it, but he badly needs a friend."
I could hardly hear him through the roaring in my ears. I stood up.
"Yes, of course," I said automatically. "I'll go see him right away. Thanks, Bill."
I was almost out the door when he warned, "Be careful how you bring it up. He's, ah, not going to be very receptive."
Receptive? I'd consider myself lucky if he didn't put me in a wheelchair.
I walked all the way down to Section Eight in a daze. I barely noticed the curious stares of the passersby. My mind was so numb that nothing external seemed to register. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say to him, or how I could say anything to him under our present circumstances. How could this have happened now, when he was safely out of the field? Maybe he'd been followed by an old enemy, someone from the past with a grudge against him. Maybe they'd waited until I was out of the picture and he had no one to watch his back. Maybe if I'd been with him, I could have....
At that last thought, the block of ice that had formed in my gut when Matthews told me his discovery began melting away like a snowcone on a summer sidewalk. I could feel my heart jump, and then settle into a slow, steady pounding. Blood rushed into my cold fingers, and I felt it flood my face, too. My eyes started to burn. My breath came quicker, and my balls even tightened a little. The same sweet rush of feeling I always got when the world narrowed down to a single imperative—kill, or die trying.
It was like getting a hard-on after endless months of impotence. Finally, finally, there was something I could do.
If I could just get him to talk to me.
But when I got to the lab, there was no sign of him. I was looking impatiently around the room when one of the technicians, a blond girl I'd heard him call Judy, hurried up to me and pressed a folded piece of paper into my hand. "Mr. Kuryakin told me to give you this," she murmured. "He said you'd be here."
I thanked her and shoved the paper into my pocket. Whatever it was, I didn't want to read it in the middle of a lab full of people.
The men's room on that floor was only a couple of doors down the hall. I ducked in there, checked quickly to make sure I was alone, and unfolded the note. It was in code; not any official U.N.C.L.E. code, but the one the two of us used to use when we needed to communicate in complete secrecy. It read: Whispering Pines Motel, room 12, 10 PM.
The Whispering Pines Motel was on Staten Island. It was a modest place, though not sleazy. We'd stayed there once, on assignment, over two years earlier. It had been a fairly routine affair, staking out a bowling alley that was suspected of being a cover for a THRUSH operation. That night we split a huge pizza with the works and watched This Gun for Hire on the Late Show. He hadn't seen it before, and I remember how fascinated he was by Alan Ladd's character, a slight, blond, almost angelic-looking guy who apparently had ice-water for blood and who went about his business of offing people for pay with perfect composure. Afterwards, we retired to our separate beds where I proceeded to enjoy wild dreams about peeling him out of a trench coat and fedora and covering his naked body with pizza sauce. All in all, a memorable evening. After we became lovers, I told him about the dreams and had the extremely rare pleasure of hearing him laugh, out loud and at length. He still won't miss an Alan Ladd picture on TV.
I parked a mile away, behind a dry-cleaning establishment that was closed for the evening, and walked to the motel. I hadn't seen any evidence that I was being tailed, but I'd learned the hard way that you can never be sure. I knew what we were doing was risky, possibly insane. But I was gambling that Waverly had better things to do than spend every single minute checking up on us, wasting valuable manpower in the process. We were far from headquarters; we had no obvious connection with the motel, since it was just one of hundreds of places we'd stayed on past missions; the incriminating pictures couldn't have come from there, since we hadn't been involved at the time. We had to take the chance because now I had to talk to him, it was as simple as that. And he knew it, or he wouldn't have had me meet him here.
The parking lot was almost empty when I arrived, and the sign out front blinked Vacancy. It was Tuesday, after all, and this wasn't the Ritz. I knew his car was hidden somewhere as carefully as mine. Room 12 was the last room, at the end of the one row of rooms that made up the whole of the Whispering Pines. We couldn't be overheard from that side, at least.
I knocked on the door, using our private pattern. It swung open a moment later and I saw that the room was completely dark. The bright light outside the door glinted off a gun barrel for an instant before he ushered me inside.
He shut the door quickly behind me and touched a switch on the wall, lighting the lamp on the nightstand between the twin beds. It threw a pool of yellow light over the beds and the space in between, while leaving the rest of the room in shadow. Since he was still standing by the door, I couldn't see if he looked any better now than the last time I'd seen him.
My eyes started searching the room automatically, but he shook his head. "It's clean. I've been over every centimeter of it. Twice." He sighed and sank down on the edge of the bed nearest the door. "And I paid for the room next door, as well."
I wasn't surprised. He was the best agent I'd ever known, after all.
I moved to the other bed and sat across from him. Now I could see the dark hollows under his eyes and the tired lines around his mouth. But it was what I couldn't see, what Matthews had seen in the infirmary, that made my stomach twist.
"You know me very well," I said softly.
He looked at me levelly. "Not well enough. I should have anticipated that you would send Matthews after me that day. I would have, had I not been—distracted. But of course, I knew he would tell you what he found out, and I knew you would confront me about it, so..." He trailed off and sighed again. "Since the confrontation was inevitable, it seemed prudent to stage it in as secure a setting as possible."
"Illya," I began, and stopped. Bile was rising in my throat and I couldn't go on.
But he nodded as though he understood perfectly anyway.
"You want to know what they did to me." It wasn't a question, and he continued without waiting for a reply. "Very well. I will tell you everything I remember and then we will put this in the past and never speak of it again. Yes?"
His tone indicated that he would tolerate no argument. Well, to hell with that. "Yes, of course," I lied casually. "If that's what you want."
He looked sharply at me for a moment, but then seemed to accept it. He rubbed his eyes, then dropped his hands to his lap and gazed down at them. I couldn't stand it anymore. I got up and moved to sit beside him, reached to put my arm around him, but he flinched away at the contact, as if I'd burned him. Maybe I had.
"Don't touch me." His voice was low, tight, controlled. "Don't make me want you. I will not want you."
The desperation in his voice cut me. I knew how it was to try to talk yourself out of something you thought you had to have.
Silently, I resumed my position on the other bed. After a moment, he sat back down.
He started speaking without looking at me, gazing past me at the opposite wall. "It was David Cameron and Paul Jorgensen."
I was so stunned I couldn't speak. Cameron and Jorgensen? They weren't THRUSH. They weren't sick, twisted psychos with sick, twisted agendas. They weren't people we'd beaten in the past who might be out for vengeance. They were U.N.C.L.E. agents. Section Two, just like us.
He kept talking, as though he hadn't noticed my astonishment.
"I had known for some time that Cameron harbored considerable—antipathy—toward me. Do you remember the affair in Venice last year, when we closed down the THRUSH satrapy?"
I nodded dumbly.
"Then you also remember that Cameron was injured when the charges went off."
"Yes, but—hell, that's a risk we all face. He knows that."
"But he and I were in the building together at the time. And when you and the rest of the backup arrived, you pulled me out." He sighed. "He was convinced that you concentrated all your resources on saving me, while leaving him to fend for himself. He thought you deliberately made him a lower priority."
"I did," I told him grimly. "And I'd do it again. He's not the most valuable field agent we have. You are."
He looked steadily at me. "Actually, you are. But are you certain that was your only motive?"
I gritted my teeth. "You're my partner." I put it in the present tense, the way I still thought of him and always would. "Just like Jorgensen is his partner. He knows how we feel about our partners, because he feels the same way."
"I doubt it." He spoke with a flash of the sandpaper-dry wit he specialized in, the kind that takes a while to sink in if you aren't used to it. Then it was gone.
"There's more. You assigned the two of them to the mission in Tokyo last January. Cameron specifically requested the one in Bombay, but that job went to me alone. And when it was over, I got a commendation from Waverly."
"But the job in Bombay only required one man, and Waverly was the one who decided it should be you. That left Tokyo to be assigned, and I gave it to Cameron and Jorgensen because I felt they were best suited to it."
"Napoleon, I am not accusing you of anything. I'm simply saying that Cameron felt that you were showing favoritism toward me. He believed that when it was up to you, I was given preferential treatment, and when it was Waverly's decision to make, you used your position as CEA to influence him." He paused. "As I said, I had known for quite a while that Cameron resented me. I also knew that the persistent rumors about my sexual tastes did not improve matters. The recent gossip about us must have only confirmed what he already suspected. He once hinted to me that it must be very nice for you to have such an assortment of willing bed partners. He added, 'And I do mean partners.'"
I could feel myself growing cold with fury. "Why didn't I know about any of this at the time?"
He made a dismissive gesture. "It was of no importance. I was more than capable of handling the situation if the need arose, or of ignoring it. I prefer not to waste my energy on nonentities like Cameron. I am only telling you now because there seems to be no avoiding it."
"Because he—" I forced myself to say the word—"raped you."
"No," he retorted sharply. "Because you discovered it. I would have said nothing otherwise. A sexual attack is of little more significance to me than a verbal one, unless permanent injury results. In this case, it did not. When I told you that day that I was fine, I meant it. It has been more than a week now, and the bruises and cuts are healing well. There is nothing to be concerned about."
I refrained from mentioning the fact that he had looked like death warmed over when I saw him in the lab that day, and that I could still see the shadows in his eyes.
He looked closely at me, as though reading my thoughts, then turned his eyes away from me and cleared his throat.
"I will admit the experience was far from pleasant, but it is over. I have not had nightmares about it, nor do I expect to. It was not the first time, after all."
He closed his eyes and let out an impatient breath. "If you must know, it happened to me once as a child, during the war, and again three years ago when I infiltrated that Venezuelan prison to destroy the THRUSH computer. You know that prisons are notorious for—"
"Stop." I almost choked on the word. "Just stop."
His voice softened slightly. "On neither occasion was my life ruined, Napoleon. This one is no different. Americans place far more importance on sex than it deserves."
"Sex!" The word burst from me like a rifle shot. "We're talking about rape, Illya! You should have told me, you should have—""I am telling you. I never mentioned it before because it had nothing to do with you, or with us. It simply does not matter."
I got up and paced around the little room. It was either that or sit still and explode.
I should have known he'd feel that way. He had learned early in life to endure pain as a matter of course, to ride it out to the end and then move on. As long as the self remained inviolate, he was safe. And none of his attackers had touched his self. It was an almost medievally Christian attitude that contrasted strangely with both his unshakable atheism and the passionate delight he took in food and lovemaking. He was a bundle of contradictions that I knew I'd never unravel.
I stopped in front of the dresser. I looked into the mirror and saw him watching me, his eyes searching my face. After a moment he asked, "Do you still want to hear about it?"
Hell, no, I don't want to hear about it. Please, please, don't make me listen. I cleared my throat. "Yes. Tell me."
He spoke flatly, expressionlessly, as though determined to eliminate every last drop of emotion from the telling. But that was the way he always dealt with horror.
"I drove upstate last Sunday afternoon to a wooded area I discovered not long after I first came to this country. I have been going there often since—for some time now—to think. It's a very isolated spot, an excellent place for reflection. Apparently, they had been observing my habits; they were lying in wait for me when I arrived. Jorgensen shot me with a paralysis dart. I fell and Cameron said, 'We know these things aren't perfected yet, Kuryakin, but we're willing to let you test it for us like a good scientist.'
"They dragged me deeper into the woods before they began removing my clothes. I couldn't struggle, of course, but they seemed to feel the need to give me a solid beating nonetheless. As you know, the paralysis darts are misnamed. They prevent any movement of the voluntary muscles, but they have no effect on the pain centers of the brain." He looked bemused for a moment. "I had never experienced that sensation before. I believe the darts will be quite effective when we've completed the testing phase."
I didn't say anything.
"Eventually, they tired of the beating, picked me up and laid me over a fallen tree trunk. They took turns fucking me. Cameron said, 'Is this the way you like it, Kuryakin? Is this what Solo did to you on all those long, boring stakeouts? Our assignments are never quite that interesting, I'm afraid. So generous of him to leave you for us when he got tired of you.'"
He paused and took a breath. "As I said, it was very unpleasant. But they finally finished with me and left. The effects of the darts last approximately two hours, so it was a while before I was able to get dressed and get back to my car. I was still bleeding, and it was uncomfortable sitting in the car on the way back. I was forced to stop several times. When I got home, I took a hot shower, treated the tears as best I could, and went to bed. I was quite exhausted, as you may imagine."
He stopped, and I saw his face in the mirror, gazing expectantly at me. I looked back at him, and wondered how it was possible that I had listened to the whole story without vomiting. Maybe it was because I knew they wouldn't get away with it. I glanced down at my hands and saw small bloody crescents on the palms where my fingernails had dug into them. I took out my handkerchief and blotted them dry.
After a moment I heard him shift on the bed, a nervous, uneasy sound. He spoke gently.
"Napoleon, if I have distressed you by telling you this, it was not my intention. Please try to understand. I knew you would never rest after what Matthews told you until you heard about it from me. Now you know, and you must stop worrying about me. I told you, it is not important."
"It's the only thing that is important now," I said, and my voice sounded strange, oddly calm, even to my own ears. I couldn't have him back, I couldn't protect him anymore, I couldn't do anything about the KGB and those damn pictures. But I could kill Cameron and Jorgensen, and I would, if I had to kill myself in the process. It was a need now, not a desire.
I turned around to face him and saw dawning comprehension in his eyes. He stared at me wordlessly, as if he were suddenly afraid to speak.
"Illya," I whispered, "don't you understand? I have to do it. I have to do something. I have to."
I saw him swallow. "You can't. Even if you survived, it would ruin you." His voice rose slightly. "You must promise me, you must—"
"But it does not matter! I tell you, it does not matter!" He was almost shouting now, his accent thickening suddenly with emotion. He stood up, clenching his fists at his sides and breathing hard. "Please, Napoleon. You would regret it forever, and it would be my fault. You cannot let personal feelings override your ethics. You know there is no place for vendettas in our—"
"It's not a vendetta. It's justice, the only justice they'll get. Would you be willing to press charges against them?"
He ignored the question. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Polya, I am begging you, please don't do this. It will destroy everything you are. Pozhalyusta. Please."
I turned away from him toward the door. Nothing he said could change my mind, but I couldn't stand to look at him while he pleaded with me.
"You're doing this out of selfishness. You have felt helpless for so long, and you see this as a chance to feel like a man again. You want to take out your frustrations on them, even though they are not the real problem. If you still cared about me, you would not risk—" He broke off suddenly. I knew emotional blackmail did not come easily to him.
Still facing the door, I asked quietly, "What would you do in my place? If someone took away what was yours and you ached for it for months, and then you finally had a chance to fight back? Would you take that chance?"
I felt his hands on my shoulders, and before I could react, he had spun me around and slammed me back against the door. His eyes blazed with some emotion I couldn't quite define, and when he spoke his voice was a raw whisper.
"No one takes what is mine. I may give it up, but no one takes it from me." He grabbed my face in his hands and forced my mouth down to his.
His lips were hot and bruising, pushing mine apart ruthlessly. His tongue plunged inside, hunting mine and stroking it triumphantly when he found it. I felt his hands leave my face and tear impatiently at my shirtfront, sending buttons flying with tiny pops. His hips undulated against me, and I could feel my cock swell and rise to meet his.
My mind had exploded at the first touch of his mouth, but I clutched desperately at the drifting pieces. I couldn't give in, stop thinking, pull him down onto the bed and take him or beg him to take me. I realized distantly that my hands had settled into their accustomed place on his ass and were eagerly pulling him closer. Somehow, I made myself loosen my grip. I made myself peel his hands off me. I made myself push him back.
We stood inches apart, breathing hard enough to fan each other's faces. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes dark with hunger. I had to clench my teeth to keep from sobbing.
His voice was low and strained. "When did you manage to achieve such admirable self-control?"
I don't know where I got the breath to answer him.
"I didn't," I said. "I had it thrust upon me, remember?"
He backed away slowly and sank down on the bed. For several long moments, neither of us spoke. I closed my eyes and tried to think about anything but the pounding in my groin and the way he had felt against me.
"Well," he said at last. "I see even my vaunted seduction technique has failed to move you." His tone was heavy with irony. "I seem to have learned nothing at all from you, Napoleon."
I turned around and had one unsteady hand on the doorknob when he spoke again.
"They are in Mexico. They left yesterday. Waverly has them investigating reports of THRUSH activity at a weapons facility there. I don't know the exact location, but we should have no difficulty uncovering it. I doubt the information is classified."
I turned back and stared at him. He was sitting with his shoulders slumped and his eyes closed, a look of defeat on his face.
"You are not coming with me," I said softly.
His eyes snapped open and he glared at me, the hopeless expression replaced by one of utter determination.
"Unless you are willing to kill me to prevent it, I am." His eyes went to the slight bulge at my side, where my Walther rested under my jacket, then to his own weapon lying on the bed next to him. "And I think we established long ago which of us is the better shot."
And now here we are. After three days of hushed pay phone conversations planning, scheming and arguing furiously over his right to accompany me; one long plane ride during which we exchanged barely a word; one endless morning spent bumping along the dusty, rutted road from Guadalajara north through the mountains to the tiny village of San Pablo del Rio, notable for absolutely nothing except the government weapons facility two miles away. The hotel our friends had checked in to is the only one in town, and this room with the squeaky bed and the inadequate ceiling fan is directly beneath theirs. This place isn't exactly a tourist trap, and the desk clerk seemed amazed that two sets of Norteamericanos had availed themselves of his establishment's dubious comforts within one week.
I've had plenty of time to think things over. I know he's right about the ethics of the situation. I know I've lost all perspective on this, and somewhere at the back of my mind it horrifies me. But I lost perspective a long time ago, really, the night I followed him into that hotel shower in Belfast. I knew then it was crazy. It's not rational to let yourself get obsessed with your partner. Partners have to be in tune with each other, and they have to be ready to give their lives for each other if necessary, but there also has to be some detachment, some objectivity. If there isn't, then sooner or later you'll find yourself having to choose between your partner and your duty, between what feels right and what is right. As I said, I knew all this from the beginning, had known it for years before I ever met him, and I knew he knew it too. I even told him so, that first night. He said, "Yes," knelt down under the running water, and drew my cock into his mouth.
Then we spent the next seventeen months refusing to think about it.
Well, it doesn't really matter now, anyway. The letter of resignation I typed up a few days ago makes it pretty academic at this point. Even if no one ever finds out what happened to Cameron and Jorgensen, I can't go on working for U.N.C.L.E. I don't have the heart or the stomach for it, after all that's happened. Actually, I might not have much choice in the matter. When Waverly realizes that the few days vacation time he granted me coincided with the few days sick leave my ex-partner took "to recover from exhaustion," that could be the end anyway. As for him, I can only hope Waverly buys Matthews' story that he ordered him to stay home for a while. Matthews is the only one who knows that we're together, although of course he doesn't know why. He thinks we both need the time off, and right now he's our only ally. Waverly respects his opinion, and if we're lucky, he's decided to call off his surveillance of us for the time being.
The headache I've been trying to fend off has finally crept up the back of my neck and settled in comfortably behind my eyeballs for what I can tell will be a long siege. I take off the shades and sigh, closing my eyes and pinching the bridge of my nose. If only there was a little breeze coming through that window.
"Do you want me to watch now?"
His voice startles me. I turn and see him lying on his side, gazing steadily at me. I wonder how long he's been observing me. He looks wide awake, for which I'm grateful. The drowsy, languorous expression his eyes often have when he first wakes up is not something I'm eager to deal with at the moment.
"No," I say, turning back to the glorious view I've been enjoying for an eon or two. "Go back to sleep."
"I've slept enough," he says, but he doesn't get up. I hear him shift, and look back to see that he's rolled onto his back again, one knee up. His right hand rests lightly at his crotch, and I have a sudden vivid mental picture of him sliding that hand beneath the pants, beneath the white cotton boxers to the soft flesh between his legs, which hardens instantly at his touch. He works it to a slow, deliberate rhythm, and I can hear the soft sounds he makes in his throat as it builds. It's so real my stomach starts to clench with excitement. But I blink and he's still just lying there. His hand hasn't moved.
"No sign of them, I take it." He appears to be addressing the words to the creaky ceiling fan over his head.
"You realize it may be hours before they return."
A long silence ensues. The little hammer continues to beat behind my eyes. Finally I have to lay the gun down on the windowsill for a moment to massage my temples. It doesn't help.
"Napoleon." His voice is very soft. "Please let me watch. You need to sleep."
"I'm all right."
He makes a small, exasperated sound. "I promise I will wake you when they come. You will not be cheated out of your precious revenge."
I turn to face him. "You're damn right I won't. Now shut up."
Abruptly he swings his legs off the bed and stands. "I have to take a piss," he snaps, and walks out, slamming the door behind him.
To my amazement, I feel sudden tears pricking my eyes. They blur my vision, and I blink them back. I pick up the Walther again and look at it. Guns are ugly things. They can be extremely useful, but I have yet to see one I like for its looks. I've never understood people who collect guns, pay outrageous prices for them, keep them in velvet-lined cases, love them. They're nothing but tools, and awfully crude, unsubtle tools at that. Maybe the people who treat them as objets d'art don't actually have to use them.
This one is not only ugly, it feels clumsy, awkward in my hand. I flex my fingers around it, trying to find the familiar smooth naturalness. But instead of seeming like an extension of myself, it's more like a block of wood. I feel no connection to it.
In fact, I'm starting to feel damn little of anything. The adrenaline wave I've been riding almost continuously since I first got the idea for this whole thing seems to have washed away and left me stranded. I remind myself what I'm here for and why, and I try to summon up the feeling again, the fire. But there's just a void. My mouth tastes bitter, and my head pounds.
He returns from his trip down the hallway to the men's room. I keep my eyes fixed on the street outside. He picks up the spindly chair in the corner and plants it at the opposite end of the window from where I sit, its back touching the windowsill. He straddles it and rests his arms along the back, his gun in his hand. While I watch out of the corner of my eye, he carefully attaches a silencer to the barrel. He's about four feet away from me. In the harsh sunlight, I can see the sweat gleaming on his forehead.
It's amazing how familiar, how normal it all seems. Just like dozens of other stakeouts, hundreds of other assignments. Except there's no lightness in us now. In the past, no matter how bad things were, we always knew we were exactly where we needed to be, doing exactly what we needed to do, and the fear was a good thing that made us sharper. I can remember the two of us grinning like idiots, making ridiculous jokes in even the worst situations, just because it felt so good to be completely in sync, operating like two halves of a whole. It seems, in some ways, like another lifetime.
God, I'm so tired of all this. I lean my head against the wall, just for a moment, and close my eyes.
"Someone's coming," he says suddenly.
My head snaps up. I peer through the curtains and see a green Buick with a rental tag on the front approaching the hotel. It pulls into one of the unmarked parking spaces almost directly beneath our window. I know it's them even before the doors open. They get out, looking tired and rumpled in the heat, and head toward the hotel's front door.
Our plan is to take the stairs up the one flight to their floor and meet them as they get off the elevator. The hotel is close to empty, and the silenced weapons won't give us away.
He stands and looks at me expectantly. His lips are a thin line. His eyes are cold steel, the way I've seen them so many other times before he's killed. But there's something else there now, something I can't remember ever seeing before. A hollowness, a haunted look. He doesn't believe in an afterlife, but he's one of the most moral people I've ever met, with his own code of ethics as strict as any church's. He's ready to violate that code for me, even though I didn't ask him to, but he'll never believe that I was right. And he'll never stop believing that by doing this, I've lost myself, the man I used to be, the man he respected so much, the man he loved. And from now on, every time he remembers me, he'll remember this.
"Sit down," I say, and though I didn't intend to whisper, that's the way the words come out.
He stares at me, eyes widening. Then, slowly, he sits.
We stay that way, our gazes holding steady, until we hear the ancient elevator rattle past. A few seconds later, a door opens and closes and there's a low murmur of voices from the room directly above us.
I close my eyes and let my breath out slowly. "Let's get the hell out of here."
I don't feel any relief, just numbness. But his eyes shine as he looks at me. He's the only person I've ever known who can smile without even moving his lips. And smile brilliantly.
He removes the silencer, slides the gun back into his holster, and picks up his jacket from the bedpost. I stand up and stretch. We've got a long drive ahead of us if we want to make it back to Guadalajara by nightfall.
Three days later, we meet at the Whispering Pines.
As far as I can tell, no one is any the wiser about our aborted adventure in San Pablo del Rio. I haven't been ordered to the Old Man's office, so it seems unlikely that he suspects anything. I'm still on leave, taking advantage of the few days away from the office to plan for the future. He went back to work the day after we got home.
We haven't talked about what happened, or about much of anything else. I was in no mood to chat in the car on the way back to Guadalajara, and he didn't press me. The plane was too crowded for us to feel comfortable discussing anything other than trivialities. But I have to see him now, and once again, the motel seems like a relatively risk-free meeting place.
Room 12 is available again. I've reserved it and room 11 under an assumed name, just as he did before. It's dusk when I check in, but still an hour before he's due to meet me. I take my time sweeping the rooms for cameras and listening devices, and then I stretch out on one of the narrow beds to wait.
He arrives right on time. I let him in and turn on the light between the beds. It's like a weird rerun of the other time, but with our roles reversed.
He still looks too thin, and it worries me. I can see the veins in the backs of his hands. But the soft light glints off his hair and the weather-blue eyes look unwaveringly into mine across the space between the beds. Even after all this time, I'm struck again by just how beautiful he is.
I can't think of any way to lead up to it, so I just say it. "I wanted to see you tonight to say goodbye. I'm leaving town tomorrow afternoon."
He looks surprised. "On assignment? I didn't know Waverly had—"
"No, I'm leaving for good." I wish my voice didn't sound so strained. "I went in this afternoon and handed in my resignation."
He blinks twice, then looks down at the carpet between our feet. I see his fingers tighten on the bedspread.
When he doesn't speak, I struggle on. "I'd been thinking about it for a long time, and I finally decided to make the move."
"Because of—us?" His voice is very quiet, and his eyes meet mine again.
I swallow. "Because of everything. White's a good agent, but we don't get along, and—"
"You could request a new partner."
"I don't want a new partner," I say softly, with emphasis on the adjective. He looks away.
"It's a lot more than that." I rest my elbows on my thighs and look down at my hands. "I just don't have what it takes anymore. I don't have the spark I used to have. On every assignment I've had since Waverly broke us up, I've felt like a robot, like I was doing my job by rote. It just doesn't mean anything to me anymore."
"Napoleon, Waverly would most likely have reinstated you as CEA in a few months. He knows how valuable you are to U.N.C.L.E.—"
I sigh. "I don't want to be reinstated, I don't want to be an enforcement agent, and I don't want to work for U.N.C.L.E. I'm finished with it."
He nods slowly. "I suppose it is pointless to argue. You have obviously made up your mind." There's a slight hesitation before he continues. "Did our little Mexican jaunt have any bearing on your decision?"
"I already had my letter of resignation written before we went. But it did make me more certain than ever that I was right." I close my eyes briefly. "I was ready to murder two of my colleagues, and if I saw the sons of bitches right now I can't guarantee that I wouldn't still do it. And enjoy the hell out of it." I try to summon up a smile. "Maybe I don't want to belong to any club that accepts people like me as members. Not to mention people like them."
He says nothing.
"It's all gotten too close to home, Illya. There's no distance anymore, and without distance, there's no safety. For either of us. I know now that we have to have that distance. If we'd had it from the beginning, you wouldn't be living under threat of death right now, and—and those bastards would never have done what they did to you. Oh, I know you think it doesn't matter. Well, it matters to me. And I couldn't go back to work and know that you're there and still keep my distance. I did it for five months and it nearly drove me insane. Sooner or later, I'd crack."
"Or I would," he says softly.
My voice begins to shake a little. "We can't risk that. You understand, don't you?"
"Yes." He speaks so quietly I can barely hear him.
Silence falls between us. I've said everything I came to say and I know it's time to leave, but....
"What will you do?" he asks, still gazing at the floor.
"I—I'm not sure. I do have some money put away, so I'll be able to survive a while without doing anything. After that, I don't know. I might consider starting my own business, although I don't really know what kind of business. I'll just have to see how it goes, I guess. I'm going to sublet my apartment because I don't think I'll be back in New York for a while." I don't tell him where I'm going, and he doesn't ask.
He nods slightly, and the lamplight plays with his hair. I'm close enough to notice for the first time, with a catch at my throat, a strand or two of gray among the gold. It wasn't there five months ago. I feel absurdly indignant. He's much too young for that.
I clear my throat. "You'll stay in the game, won't you?"
He shrugs. "I suppose."
"I'll bet with me gone, the Old Man might put you back in Section Two. You could be back in the field before you know it." I get a sudden twinge of fear. I won't be there to watch his back for him.
"Perhaps." He sounds completely indifferent, even though I know he's missed fieldwork.
I've got to get out of here. I feel as if I'm holding myself together with spit.
I stand, willing my legs not to tremble. He rises with me, almost simultaneously, and suddenly we're standing chest to chest, nearly touching. I catch just a glimpse of brightness in his eyes before he turns them deliberately away.
I can feel my insides caving. I whisper, "Illya," and lean forward to hug him for the last time, but he jerks away and steps out of reach, fixing his gaze on the floor again and shaking his head violently. My own vision's gotten blurry, but I can see his throat muscles working as he swallows.
Quickly, before I can think about it anymore, I move past him. As I go by, I can't stop myself from laying a hand gently on his shoulder. He covers it with his own, and squeezes, hard, for just an instant before letting go. I let my hand drop and walk to the door. I fumble blindly with the lock, nearly screaming with frustration when it won't open immediately. Then I'm outside, pulling the door shut behind me with a soft click. It sounds louder than any gunshot I've ever heard.
I start walking, across the parking lot, down the road to where I left my car. The sultry August air settles around me like a comforting blanket.
I'm holding up pretty well, actually. Better than I thought I would. I'm not letting myself fall apart.
I don't until the next morning, when I do my final packing and find a long-forgotten black turtleneck in the back of my closet.