Weapon of Choice
Thanks to Jane Terry for edits and encouragement.
The lawn of Blair University was dotted with swirling black cloth. The new graduates, all attired in gowns and mortarboard caps, formed loose clusters that materialized and dispersed in the late afternoon sun. If it weren't for the flash of cameras and the sound of merry laughter, one could have confused them for a drunken funeral procession.
Three men wove a path through the masses with single-minded determination: Alexander Waverly, head of U.N.C.L.E. New York, flanked by his two best agents, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.
Waverly adjusted his own mortarboard as a brisk breeze threatened its precarious position on his head. "My compliments, Mr. Solo, on your cap-throwing demonstration at the graduation ceremony. It was most timely given the circumstances."
Napoleon smiled broadly, his chest almost puffed with pride at the praise. "As a student, I was a discus thrower in the athletics team."
"I thought it was the javelin," Illya said.
"I threw them both."
"You had the breeze working in your favor."
Napoleon leaned past Waverly to look Illya in the eye. "I took the wind speed and direction into account before I threw."
Waverly held each man by the shoulder, firmly setting them apart. "As I was saying, Mr. Solo, it was an excellent demonstration."
Napoleon wasn't quite ready to let it go, but he relented in deference to Waverly's authority. "Thank you, sir. It's nice to be appreciated." His dark eyes flashed Illya's way for an instant.
Illya couldn't pinpoint the impulse to needle Napoleon. After all, he had single-handedly saved Waverly's life. With a flick of his wrist, Napoleon had tossed the mortarboard and deflected the aim of the Thrush impostor masquerading as Dean Dwight. Thanks to his trademark mixture of luck and derring-do, U.N.C.L.E. was safe once again.
A young man approached them, his black gown billowing in the wind. "Man, that was brilliant! That throw was so cool." He grabbed and vigorously pumped Napoleon's hand. "That hat twisted in mid-air like it was remote controlled."
"Thank you. It's all in a day's work."
"It was, like, amazing! How did you do it?"
"He's an U.N.C.L.E. agent," Waverly said. He patted Napoleon's shoulder like a father pleased with his son's efforts. "We've trained him to keep his cool under any situation."
"Of course, the wind was in my favor." Napoleon cast a sidelong look at Illya.
"Look, here he is. Napoleon!" Patricia Darling ran up to them, accompanied by two of her friends. "I've been looking for you everywhere." She threw her arms around Napoleon's neck, almost suffocating him in her enthusiasm.
"Hummph," Waverly grunted to no one in particular.
Illya resisted the urge to roll his eyes. They'd been partners for over three years, but his tolerance for Solo-worship was still pitifully low. "Sir, in view of the lack of security in this area, we should proceed directly to Felton Hall. Napoleon can catch up with us once he's signed some autographs for his budding fan club."
"A good idea, Mr. Kuryakin."
Napoleon attempted to disengage himself from Patricia's arms, well aware of Waverly's displeasure. "Sir, I'd be more than happy to accompany you—"
Patricia squeezed him even tighter. "But Jane and Suzy want to meet you!"
"I'll be fine with Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly turned away, shaking his head in resignation. "I expect to see you inside Felton Hall in ten minutes."
Napoleon didn't have much of an option. The girls formed a determined mob around him. He threw his arms up in an exaggerated display of exasperation, and waved at Illya and Waverly as they disappeared behind another swirl of black gowns
Illya needed to be vigilant. Without Napoleon's unique presence, there was twice as much work for him to do. He observed the people that passed them, watching for any sudden movements or strange sounds. Even though they had caught Trumbole, there was still the possibility of other Thrush henchmen in their midst. But everyone was celebrating a graduation, not plotting to bring down a multinational security organization.
A few yards ahead, a young woman waved her arms. Thick strands of straw-like blond hair waved behind her in the wind. "Illya!"
"Do you know this young lady?" Waverly demanded.
"Minerva Dwight, sir. She's the daughter of Dean Dwight."
Waverly's brows drew together in a frown. "Timothy's daughter?"
"You will be staying a little longer, won't you?" She spoke to them both, but only had eyes for Illya. "Daddy will want to speak to you at the reception."
"We're going back to Felton Hall," Illya explained. "Considering the commotion we've already caused, we should keep clear of the other graduates."
"I can bring you some sandwiches, and I'll let Daddy know. I want you to meet him, especially since you and I—"
"Minerva, I can't." Illya had to interrupt, if only to stop Waverly's eyebrows rising by the second. The startled owl expression on his craggy face didn't suit him at all. Quickly Illya took her aside and tried a different tactic. "I wish I could be the father of your genetically superior children, but there's one small problem I should tell you about."
"My entire family is insane."
Minerva took a step back, fearing contamination. "Insane?"
"Yes." He lowered his voice. "Even I have a touch of it myself. Only early symptoms, so my doctor said. Nothing to worry about."
"Oh, I see." Distaste clouded her eyes for a moment, then she forced a bright smile to her lips. "Well, I better get back to Daddy. He gets so lost at these functions. I...I'll see you both later."
"Quick thinking, Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said as they resumed walking again. "For a moment I thought you'd picked up some of Mr. Solo's vices."
Illya snorted at the idea. "Sir, I have no objection to being labeled insane, but my tolerance for insults and character assassination does have its limits."
Waverly remained silent, a raised eyebrow his only response.
With the protestors waving placards at the graduation ceremony, Illya hadn't expected Felton Hall to be filled with anti-U.N.C.L.E. banners and posters too. But many half-finished signboards still hung on easels. The smell of turpentine and paint lingered in the air.
Waverly seemed more fascinated than insulted by the slogans. He walked around the scattered furniture, inspecting each sign he could find.
"'Down with U.N.C.L.E.' Not very complimentary, is it?"
Illya stood near the entrance. From here, he could see in advance who was approaching the building. "This place was the hotbed of political activism and protest. If I'd known these placards were still here—"
"Never mind. It was much the same in my day. The causes were different, but the desire for radical change has always been a college student's prerogative." Waverly took off his cap, his eyes distant with memories. "They were good times. Returning here brings them all back."
It was unusual to see Waverly so wistful. Illya was accustomed to him as a distant superior: occasionally forgetful, yet sometimes penetrating in his insight, but seldom sentimental. He sent them out on perilous assignments without blinking an eye; he criticized far more than he praised. It was hard to envision him as a young student with hopes and dreams like one of the many they'd encountered outside.
"I miss my college days sometimes. No responsibilities except for the last-minute assignment or end-of-semester exam." Waverly walked around the easels, the empty podium, the scattered chairs and benches. "The freedom to walk where I wished, when I wished. It was nice to be able to do that today. Just like old times."
"I'm pleased to hear it, sir. But in the future, I recommend that you be accompanied by a detailed security attachment. Considering the number of hatchet men Thrush has in its employ—"
"Which would have defeated the object of the exercise." Waverly's voice was curt and brisk, once again in command. " I didn't want to be surrounded by guards. That would only have fueled the paranoia of the student activists and tabloid media. In any case, you and Mr. Solo did a passable job, considering the recent difficulties in your professional relationship."
Illya's jaw dropped a fraction. "I...I beg your pardon?"
"I can understand the friendly rivalry that underpins any partnership. You and Mr. Solo indulge in it more than other agents, but that's not surprising. Such a competitive drive can act as a goad to improve one's own performance." Waverly moved closer, his sharp gray eyes boring into him. "But when it leads to increasing tension and hostility, then the underlying motives need to be examined."
Illya didn't know what to say. He glanced at the empty doorway. Would a Thrush agent burst in to save him? No such luck. "Napoleon is an excellent agent, and a fine working partner." He managed to meet Waverly's gaze. "I have no complaints with him."
"Good. And I'm sure that if Mr. Solo were here, he'd say exactly the same of you. But I have noticed a growing level of friction between the two of you since your assignment in Malaysia. During debriefing sessions, I sometimes think respect for my presence is the only barrier preventing you both from strangling each other or—"
Both men looked up. Napoleon stood in the doorway, hands in pockets. A lock of dark hair fell down the center of his forehead, disturbed by the stiff breeze outside. His dark eyes glittered as he took them in without moving a muscle.
"You've made good time, Mr. Solo."
"Thank you, sir." Napoleon stepped inside, his eyes darting from Illya to Waverly. "What were you talking about?"
"The two of you, as you well know. This standoff has gone on for long enough." Waverly placed a hand on Napoleon's shoulder and one on Illya's shoulder, bridging the gap between them. "I expect a resolution, gentlemen, by the time I see you in my office tomorrow morning."
Napoleon's eyes flashed Illya's way. "I have no quarrel with Illya. There's nothing to be resolved, is there?"
"Nothing that I'm aware of."
A smile curved Napoleon's lips, but it didn't reach his eyes. He held out his right hand. "Why don't we shake on it? Friends?"
Illya hesitated. He didn't want to shake hands. It would do nothing to dissipate the tension between them. Waverly was right, as always. Something had happened to them in Malaysia. Something big.
Or so Napoleon had implied, with a brazen display of nudity in their hotel room the next morning. And for the past four weeks, he'd maintained a delicate barrage of subtle innuendo, meaningful looks and gradual encroachment of Illya's personal space.
I think you should give it a chance. Try some of the forbidden fruit.
Illya had the uneasy feeling that he had done more than taste. With a mixture of painkillers and alcohol to cloud his judgment, had he ended up devouring half the crop? He couldn't remember clearly. And he'd rather be exiled to Siberia than ask Napoleon for the intimate details.
Illya extended his hand in return as dictated by etiquette. Across the few feet separating them, their hands grasped, then released. It was an impersonal form of contact, too brief to communicate anything of significance. Illya was left with the imprint of solid strength, and a sharp frisson of physical awareness. Napoleon must have felt something too. He clenched and unclenched his fingers, his brooding gaze never leaving Illya's face.
It was supposed to be a handshake, an ending of hostilities. But Illya felt as if he'd come out second best in a deal with the devil.
"Alexander, here you are at last." Dean Dwight came in, his daughter Minerva by his side. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief. "Today must be one of the most stressful days of my life. I was convinced I was going mad, seeing that doppelganger of myself all over the place. It's enough to drive a man to a nervous breakdown."
"It was Thrush, Timothy. There's nothing wrong with your mind at all."
"Maybe so, but my nerves are completely—I said completely—shot to pieces. I think this will be my last graduation for a long time to come. I'm just grateful that I had Minerva to sort out the real 'me' from the fake 'me.'" He caught sight of the U.NC.L.E. agents. "Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin, I am indebted to you for saving my life and that of my daughter."
"You're most welcome, Dean Dwight," Napoleon replied, nodding in acknowledgement.
"Don't take offence, but I sincerely hope I never see either of you again. I don't think I could cope." He laughed nervously, but his hands trembled. The mayhem today had taken a heavy toll on him. Illya felt a twinge of sympathy. Most innocents had exactly the same reaction after their involvement in an U.N.C.L.E. assignment.
"It's over now, Daddy," Minerva told him. "Don't worry about it any more."
"I won't, my dear, I won't. But I think it's time I considered retirement. There's a point in a man's life when he has to put himself ahead of his work."
"Retirement?" Waverly scoffed. "But Timothy, you're my age. How can you think of retiring in your prime?"
"Prime? I'm getting old, Alex, old!"
The two men began discussing the merits of retirement amongst themselves. Minerva drew away and sidled over to Napoleon. "That cap throw you did today was just beautiful."
"Why, thank you, Minerva." Napoleon looked over her head at Illya, asking a silent question.
Illya shrugged, and sat on one of the ottomans scattered around the room. Minerva had wisely decided to move on to greener pastures, which was fine by him. He just didn't want to listen while Napoleon wrapped her around his finger. It was a scenario he'd seen too many times to find remotely interesting.
But he couldn't help watching the two of them. She was flicking back her peroxide-blonde hair and smiling. Napoleon smiled back, indulgent amusement warming his eyes. Once, he glanced Illya's way, still puzzled. Illya quickly ducked his head.
Napoleon took her arm, and managed to convey gallantry and good manners with the gesture. "Minerva, why don't we sit down?"
They were heading in his direction. Illya resisted the urge to get up and move. He expected Napoleon to steer Minerva to one of the other ottomans. There were several of them in the room. But Napoleon navigated Minerva past them all. Illya watched with growing amazement as they approached him.
"You don't mind if we sit here, do you?" Napoleon asked.
Illya cast a pointed look at the small space beside him. It was too small for three people, but he had no intention of giving it up. He shifted so that his legs were over the far end of the seat. "Be my guest."
Minerva hesitated. "We can sit elsewhere, you know."
"Why?" Napoleon seated himself at the other end of the ottoman. "It's really quite comfortable." He held out a hand to her. "Come sit."
Illya couldn't believe it. Napoleon was sitting back-to-back against him, while allowing Minerva to sit on his knee. What on earth was he up to?
Napoleon half-turned his head, and Illya hastily looked away. He didn't want to be caught staring.
"Are you comfy?" Napoleon asked Minerva.
"No," Illya muttered. He didn't want to eavesdrop on this moment of romantic intimacy, but Napoleon wasn't giving him much choice.
"I'm okay." Minerva giggled, suddenly nothing at all like the radical protestor she aspired to be. "I haven't done this since I was a little girl visiting Santa Claus."
"Now, Minerva, I think there's something we should clear up before we go any further." Napoleon shifted in his seat, and Illya felt it along the length of his spine. Only their clothing separated them. "I thought you were building your superman plans around Illya."
"I was, but he told me that insanity runs in his family." Minerva paused for a beat, then rushed in. "Well, I couldn't very well expose my future offspring to that kind of risk. Why, he even told me that he was a little...off."
"Crazy like a fox." Low and soft, the final word left Napoleon's lips as a whisper.
Illya knew that tone of voice: Napoleon in his prowling sex-kitten mode. Some things never changed. Did Napoleon want to make him jealous by flirting with Minerva under his nose? Illya smiled in spite of himself. In many ways, Napoleon was still a little boy, unable to resist the opportunity to show off his latest toy.
"Oh, Mr. Kuryakin!"
A woman's voice. Illya tensed, and felt Napoleon do the same. Who was calling out his name?
The doors to Felton Hall swung open. Patricia Darling scrambled inside as if tossed by the wind. Hair and limbs flying, she dodged the easels and ottomans, only stopping for breath when she was in front of Illya.
"Yes, Miss Darling?"
Quickly she adjusted her windblown locks, then stepped forward so that her calf rested against his bent knee. She simpered and fluttered her lashes at him. "Please," she drawled, "Patricia."
From the frying pan into the fire. Minerva's adoration had been exasperating enough, but this defied words. He hardly knew Patricia Darling. He didn't remember inviting her to invade his personal space. Had she been taking lessons from Napoleon? How to politely extricate himself of this new nuisance?
Illya looked straight ahead, silently wishing he were somewhere else.
"Can I call you...Illya?" She drew out the first syllable of his name, as if savoring the sound of it.
Her girlish anticipation was laughable. But, to her credit, she'd gone to the trouble of pronouncing his name properly. It seemed churlish of him to reject her outright. At his back, he was aware of the waiting silence. Napoleon was listening in on every word, curious to see what he'd do next.
That awareness triggered the dormant mischievous impulse within him. Two could play at this game. He kept his voice neutral, but not unwelcoming. "Please do."
Patricia beamed, her eyes alight with pleasure. Behind him, Napoleon straightened like a hunting dog catching a whiff of game.
Illya felt it. Bingo.
"You know, Mr. Solo told me how smart you are." Patricia's voice rose and fell in her enthusiasm like a squeaky playground swing. "I mean, getting all those answers when you were on the teaching machine." She nudged him with her elbow and grinned.
Was this Napoleon's doing? Of all the—
"Oh, he's a very bright guy."
That was the last thing he needed: Napoleon with one of his facetious comments. Bad enough that he'd put ideas in Patricia's head. What on earth was he up to?
"Well, point is, I'm not!" Patricia suppressed an embarrassed giggle. "So I thought that maybe you might tutor me. In the evenings?"
Damn Napoleon and his big mouth.
Napoleon half-turned to look at him, using that very same mouth to make more unwelcome remarks. "You'll do a wonderful job."
Maybe he would, but he wasn't interested. He'd had enough of naïve college students to last him for years. And he still hadn't figured out what attracted them to him. He had dressed to blend unobtrusively in the background. He rarely courted the attention of women. He went out of his way to act aloof and disinterested. Any person with common sense would take the hint.
Unfortunately, common sense and women didn't always go hand in hand.
It was time to play his ace again. "You know—" he paused for dramatic effect, "—there's insanity in my family."
"Ooooh!" Patricia almost squealed in her excitement. "That makes it even more interesting!"
He couldn't believe it. The mere mention of mental illness was enough to spook Minerva. How could Patricia find it interesting?
"You will, won't you?"
No! Definitely not! The words were on the tip of his tongue, and then he noticed the rapt expression on her youthful face. She looked so young, her eyes as wide as those of a newborn fawn. He couldn't remember being her age, so full of giddy hopes and romantic daydreams. She was rather sweet in her own bubble-headed way. And she wasn't unattractive.
Illya relented. Humoring her for the time being would be no hardship. He managed a smile, and pressed his clothed knee against her exposed calf. "Why not?"
Patricia smiled back at him, and seated herself on his knee.
Maybe he could gently let her down later. He had other weapons in his arsenal to keep a woman at bay. "Patricia, what subjects do you need tutoring in?"
She was gazing at him, a dreamy expression on her face. "Hmm?"
"What subjects would you like me to help you with?"
"Oh." She giggled into his neck. "Everything."
"Everything? Are you sure?"
"I need all the help I can get." Limpid brown eyes looked down at him. "Do you think we could start tonight?"
Napoleon craned his neck, half-turning in Illya's direction. "Surely you're not planning on study tonight."
"Well..." She looked at Illya again. "I was hoping Illya and I could start our first lesson as soon as possible."
"Uh-uh. Not tonight," Napoleon told her. "How about you, Minerva?"
"I'm not doing anything. Why do you ask?"
Why was Napoleon asking both of them? Illya knew he should be making some kind of protest, but the rational part of his mind counseled silence. He didn't really want to play tug-of-war over Patricia. If Napoleon wanted to take her out of his lap, then he was welcome to her.
"How about Illya and I take the two of you out tonight for dinner? A double date, the four of us?"
The two girls looked at each other.
"That would be so cool!" Minerva cried.
"Count me in!" Patricia added.
Illya and I. Both of them. Together.
Illya cleared his throat. "Won't we be in the way? I wouldn't want to cramp your style."
"Not at all. The more the merrier." Napoleon tilted his head back slightly. Illya could feel the lean muscle and bone press against his back, the unyielding weight of Napoleon's skull against his own. "Don't you agree?"
"You will come, won't you?" Patricia begged. "We can even start lessons during dinner, if you like."
Illya was trapped, physically and metaphorically. "Sure. Why not?"
"Yes, yes!" Patricia hugged his neck, then jumped to her feet. "But where are we going? Do we have to dress up? What should I wear?"
Illya stood up, relieved to be free. "Clothes will do."
"I refuse to dress up too much," Minerva said. "Formal clothes are so middle-class."
"True beauty doesn't require any ornament," Napoleon replied softly.
A few feet away, Dean Dwight was frowning. "Alex, about these young men of yours—"
"Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin are men of character and integrity, Timothy. Your daughter couldn't be in safer hands. Stop worrying so much. You're starting to sound like an old woman."
Illya was amazed at how quickly Napoleon had organized everything. A meeting time and place was arranged, to everyone's satisfaction except his. He hadn't been consulted on anything. As usual.
"I'll see you later." Patricia hesitated, then abruptly hugged him again. "I can't help being so excited! This is my first date with a real man."
"Come on." Minerva pulled at her arm, almost dragging her away. "You have to be careful with him," she whispered loudly. "He seems nice, but he's really—" Their heads were close as they left the hall together.
No doubt, his sanity would be their main topic of conversation. But Illya was acutely conscious of the silence of the man just behind him. "That's unusually generous of you to invite me along."
"It's hardly the first time. We've double-dated before, haven't we?"
Illya turned. Napoleon was sitting back on the ottoman, arms folded, one leg crossed over the other at the ankle. He looked at ease, but there was a tension in the set of his jaw. His hazel eyes were cool, the usual easy humor absent.
"Yes, we have." But as friends, not as...as what? What were they? They were not enemies. They still worked together, spoke civilly to each other. But it felt different, strange. Wrong.
Waverly's voice startled them both.
"Yes, sir?" Napoleon asked.
"Whatever your personal differences, I want this resolved by ten a.m. tomorrow when I see you in New York. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," Illya and Napoleon chimed in unison. Despite their differences, they hadn't forgotten how to present a unified front before their boss.
"And Mr. Solo? Please continue to curb your predatory instincts around Miss Dwight. Dean Dwight has enough on his mind without adding his daughter's virtue to his list of worries."
"Of course, sir."
"I'll be sure to supervise him." Illya couldn't resist the jibe, and was rewarded with a filthy look from Napoleon.
"Very good. I daresay you'll have your work cut out for you." He glanced at his watch. "No doubt Blair University will be glad to be rid of U.N.C.L.E.'s presence, so I've called the car to pick me up. I suggest that you move out of the men's dormitory this afternoon, Mr. Kuryakin."
"But where will I stay?"
"You can always room with me," Napoleon offered. "I'm sure they'll let me squeeze you in somewhere."
A car horn beeped outside. They escorted Waverly outside, and into the waiting black car. Three other black cars were parked nearby, all decoys with Waverly mannequins.
"I'll see you tomorrow, gentlemen. Carry on."
They didn't speak until the car was out of sight. "I'll try to find a room of my own—"
"You'll have no luck. The hotel is fully occupied with families coming in for the graduation. Do you have a problem with sharing a room with me?"
Illya met his gaze evenly. "I don't have a problem with it."
"I don't either. Then there is no problem, is there?"
Lies, all lies. And Illya knew how to lie as well as Napoleon. "I guess not."
Double-dating with Napoleon Solo was a double-edged sword. He was witty and amusing, and knowledgeable about restaurants and bars. Name a city, and he'd be able to rattle off a list of the best places to wine and dine. There was also something reassuring about going out with one's partner, especially in a foreign city. Safety in numbers.
But it was hard work. Being charming came easily to Napoleon. It was like breathing to him. For Illya, it took a bit more effort. And the idea of trying to out-charm Napoleon was a game he knew he couldn't win.
This current escalation in rivalry was only going to make the evening more difficult. Illya wasn't looking forward to it. But he'd decided on a suitable strategy. He would see what Napoleon did, and do the exact opposite. If Napoleon dressed up, he'd make sure to dress down. If Napoleon slicked his hair back, he'd keep his hair tousled and messy. If Napoleon murmured sweet nothings, he'd make sure to put his dark glasses on and look supremely indifferent.
It all depended on how Napoleon wanted to play it.
So an hour later, after moving out of his dorm room at Blair University, he made his way to Napoleon's hotel room. He wore the same jeans and sheepskin jacket he'd worn earlier that day.
Napoleon peered from behind the door, the lock chain still attached. "You're early." He removed the lock and swung the door open. His torso was bare, covered with a smattering of body hair and a damp sheen of water on his skin.
Illya looked down. A white towel, slung low around his hips, preserved a shred of modesty. When he regained enough presence of mind to look up, he found Napoleon looking him over critically.
"Tell me you're not wearing that tonight."
"It's more than what you've got on at the moment."
Napoleon bowed in an exaggerated display of manners. "Excuse me while I get changed."
Inside it was dimly lit, with plush carpet, heavy curtains and one bed.
"I hope you don't mind sharing."
One bed, but bigger than the one they had shared last time. A memory, vivid and sharp, entered his mind. A humid evening, the taste of champagne, the scent of durian...and Napoleon's eyes glowing as he loomed over him, blocking out the light.
"We didn't have any trouble last time, remember?" The words were soft, almost whispered in his ear.
"It should be fine." It was at least queen-sized. There would be at least ten—maybe twelve—inches between them, providing they each kept within their respective boundaries.
"I'm glad to hear it."
Napoleon's proximity was palpable, even though they didn't touch. The warmth of his breath sent a wave of lazy heat trickling from Illya's nape down his spine. Dread and lust flared for an instant, canceling each other out. Willpower quashed any remaining flights of fancy.
No. Illya refused to play. Not yet, when the rules were dictated purely according to Napoleon's whim.
He directed a look of cool indifference at Napoleon. Napoleon lowered his gaze, a knowing smile on his lips.
Shrugging out of his jacket, Illya watched while Napoleon went to the wardrobe mirror. He turned his head from side to side, stroked his chin, carefully inspecting his jaw for stubble. It was an unconsciously sensual gesture.
Illya sat on the bed, openly staring. Why did Napoleon bother? It was a perfect close shave, as always. Maybe it was an excuse to admire his reflection.
"Aren't you going to get ready for tonight?" Napoleon asked.
"Why should I? You're doing enough preparation for both of us."
Napoleon opened the wardrobe. "I've never dressed down for a date, and I don't intend to start now." First came the pleated white shirt, then the trousers, neatly folded. Next came the vest and dinner jacket, single-breasted with satin lapels. It wasn't black, but an elusive shade of midnight blue that appeared blacker than black itself.
"Wearing that isn't going to impress them. They're students. They want to rebel against authority, challenge social conventions, achieve world peace—"
"Make out in the back of the family car?"
"Given half a chance, that too. But wearing the clothes their parents once wore—"
"Illya, some things never change. I've yet to meet a woman who isn't impressed by the sight of a man in a tuxedo. It has the power to transform the most ordinary male into a perfect specimen of elegant, debonair masculinity."
Illya grimaced. He wasn't interested in being a perfect specimen. All he wanted was to make it through the evening without having to beat Patricia off with a stick. "You're welcome to it. I'll stick to playing the ordinary male."
"I don't think that's a good idea. Tonight is special." Napoleon removed the towel with a flourish, revealing perfectly muscled buttocks.
Illya averted his gaze and looked at the carpet. Once, he would have thought nothing of seeing Napoleon nude. After all, they were both men and shared much the same anatomy.
But something had changed. Something was different.
Napoleon projected a certain sexual magnetism; it was not something one could ignore. It was a talent that Illya had never begrudged him. But there were moments when Napoleon squandered it in an almost indiscriminate fashion. Illya had learned to view it with tolerant humor, even amusement. This gregariousness, this desire to interact and attract the approval of others, was an unalterable part of his partner's personality. Napoleon had not changed.
No, it wasn't Napoleon. It was him. He had changed since the assignment in Kuala Lumpur. Was it a crush? Was it an itch? Was it sexual frustration? Illya didn't know. All he knew was that he had developed a new awareness of his partner that bordered on obsession. Napoleon's voice, his movements, his scent...Illya couldn't stop thinking about it. From being a distant, arch observer watching Napoleon from the sidelines, he'd somehow become fair game. A moving target. Potential prey.
And in his dreams, his imagination taunted him with vivid images. Were they drunken memories...or desperate wish fulfillment?
Worse of all, Napoleon had said nothing about Malaysia, but he'd been acting differently. Watching him, and waiting...for what? For him to crack?
Illya bent his head, and ran a hand through his hair. He'd been waiting, too. Waiting for weeks for Napoleon to tell him what happened in Malaysia. Something, anything was better than this nagging uncertainty that was slowly driving them both mad.
The direct approach was the only way to get answers.
Illya swallowed. His throat felt dry. The room was silent except for the whisper of cloth against skin.
Napoleon spoke first, saving him the trouble. "As part of your cover as a college student, I know your wardrobe for this assignment is limited, so I took the liberty of hiring something for you to wear."
Illya looked up. "You did what?"
Thankfully, Napoleon had buttoned his shirt. His legs were still bare, but at least his torso was now concealed beneath snowy white cloth. "I hired you a suit for tonight. It should be coming up any minute."
"You hired a dinner jacket, didn't you?" Illya pulled at the neckline of his gray skivvy, already uncomfortable at the memory of starched collars and bow ties.
"I hired a tuxedo, yes." Napoleon cocked his head to one side at Illya's mirror reflection. "Is that a problem?"
"I hate wearing them. If the tie and rigid collar doesn't choke you, then the cummerbund will."
"Ahhh." Napoleon turned around, buttoning his shirt. "But you could wear a vest instead," he suggested. "That's what I plan to do."
"More buttons. It's too fiddly."
"It needs to be done." Napoleon reached for the trousers, checked the crease. Once satisfied, he bent to put them on. "You don't complain about oiling and cleaning your gun, do you?"
Illya studied the fabric of his jeans. "Firearms are important. They are weapons we use it as part of our work."
"So is this."
"How is a dinner jacket a weapon?" Illya asked, genuinely mystified.
Napoleon's lips quirked in amusement. "Well, it can hardly cause the same physical injury as a well-placed bullet. But it can be an effective weapon when you want to make an impact on a date."
"An impact." Dating as the genteel equivalent of open warfare...Illya often saw it this way, but he never imagined that Napoleon shared the same viewpoint. He always seemed so relaxed with people, whether friends or strangers. "Like a grenade, for instance?"
Napoleon flashed a feral grin over his shoulder. "Maybe, without the same destructive potential. I was thinking of it more as a way to foster good public relations."
Dinner jackets, guns, grenades...public relations. The connection was nebulous to him. "May I ask how?"
"Tonight, as representatives of U.N.C.L.E., we are thanking Minerva and Patricia for their cooperation by taking them out to dinner." He looped the bow tie around his collar. "Going to the trouble of wearing a tuxedo is simply my way of creating a good impression for U.N.C.L.E."
Illya didn't buy it for a second. He stood up in one easy movement, unable to resist the chance to mock Napoleon's dedicated worth ethic. "So you're doing this purely in the line of duty?" he asked the reflection in the mirror.
"Of course." Napoleon bent his head slightly. But the dark eyes he lifted to the mirror sizzled as they met Illya's.
Illya couldn't look away. He was exposed, scorched by that gaze. Napoleon knew. He knew he held the leash, and was yanking it for all it was worth. And he didn't even have to say a word, or move a muscle.
"Illya?" A mere whisper of sound from perfectly chiseled lips.
No. He had to fight it. Fight the urge to press himself against Napoleon, pull at his immaculately pressed clothing, run his lips over that solid jaw and chin.
Illya swallowed. "Your top button is undone," he muttered.
Napoleon inclined his head. "So it is." He lifted his chin to reach the button, allowing Illya a glimpse of his long, almost graceful, line of throat. Only the predatory gleam in his eye hinted at what had passed between them.
The knock at the door broke the impasse. Illya went to answer it, and was presented with a matching blue-black dinner jacket and a cardboard box.
"Did you order all this?"
Napoleon turned away from his own reflection, fingers automatically knotting his tie. "One tuxedo, one shirt, one pair of suitable shoes. Yes, that's it."
First paired up, now dressed up. Illya clenched his jaw, keeping his temper leashed for the moment. He would deal with Napoleon later. Carefully he placed both the suit and box on the table. The material of the suit was smooth, almost slippery under his fingers. Nothing. Next, he examined the box. No springs, no wires, no sign of foul play. He lifted the lid and jumped back.
Black shoes wrapped in tissue. He picked one up. Italian leather, in his size.
"Who's paying for all this?"
"U.N.C.L.E. It's going on your expense account."
"If Waverly refuses to pay, I'll be extracting the cost from you personally. What's wrong with the shoes I already have?"
"You can't just wear any shoes with a tuxedo. That's the most common fashion mistake." Napoleon adjusted his bow tie. "Start changing. We're supposed to pick them up in twenty minutes."
"If you're hoping for victory with Minerva tonight, I think you should rethink your tactics."
"You really think so?" Napoleon buttoned his vest. "Well, we'll have to see about that."
Illya took the clothes with him into the bathroom. He couldn't be bothered arguing about it any more. Napoleon had already made all the arrangements, the way he usually did. To give him credit, he was pretty good at such things. But there were moments when he felt like an extra in a B-grade spy movie starring Napoleon Solo, dashing secret agent man.
"Just watch out for the flowers," Napoleon called out.
A couple of long-stemmed red roses lay in the washbasin, their cut stems below the water line.
Illya picked up one rose. The smell was subtle and sweet. The petals were slightly unfurled, at that delicate stage between bud and full bloom. Thorns jutted from the stem at various angles.
Another weapon for tonight?
He tested one thorn with his finger. Sharp enough to draw blood.
Illya swore softly to himself, and dropped the rose back in the basin.
"That's so sweet of you, Illya." Patricia Darling brushed the soft bloom against her cheek. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Out of the corner of one eye, Illya could see Napoleon watching him across the table. The sharp uncompromising lines of the jacket fitted him well, and he knew it. The blackness of the jacket and vest emphasized his dark looks. His eyes reflected the flickering candlelight at odd intervals.
Satanic. There was no other way to describe Napoleon tonight.
Thanks to his meticulous planning, the four of them were ensconced in a secluded booth of a stylish French restaurant. Starched white tablecloth and napkins, gleaming cutlery, sparkling wine glasses for each person. The tinkling of piano keys blended unobtrusively with the low murmurs of the other patrons.
"No one's ever given me a rose before. It's so beautiful. Oh!" Patricia dropped the rose on the table and clutched her index finger. "It pricked me."
Illya showed her the cut on his finger. "An occupational hazard when dealing with any dangerous weapon."
Patricia laughed. "It's just a rose!"
"Don't put ideas in her head, Illya." Across the table, Napoleon's expression was deadpan. Only the glitter in his eyes hinted at his amusement. "You just have to know how to handle it." He turned to Minerva and handed her a second long-stemmed rose. "Do you like it, Minerva?"
"It's beautiful." Minerva had undergone a transformation for tonight. With her sleeveless dress in bold geometric print and her hair pinned up in a chignon, she looked every inch an elegant young lady. "Did you know that roses are an example of the benefits of genetic selection? Wild roses grew in thick briar bushes with dense thorns. If it wasn't for careful breeding, we'd never be able to enjoy them the way we do now. Don't you agree?" she asked Napoleon.
"Definitely." He smiled indulgently at her. She smiled back.
So much for the dinner jacket not making an impression. Minerva was still fascinated with Napoleon's reproductive potential. Patricia was less assertive, but Illya had seen the adoring looks she'd cast his way. It was going to be a long evening. The suit, the rose, the soft candlelight...he was going to have his work cut out for him if he hoped to dissuade Patricia of any amorous intentions.
Unexpectedly, it was Minerva who came to his rescue. Her passionate interest in eugenics was all consuming, and she could find examples of its benefits everywhere. The meat. The vegetables. Selective breeding was responsible, and she was determined to expound on it at length. Despite Napoleon's best efforts and most outrageous compliments, she refused to be drawn from her pet topic. Making Lenin a capitalist would be easier than distracting Minerva from eugenics.
Patricia found eugenics boring. She tried to ask Illya a few questions about his background, but he easily deflected them. But she didn't mind too much. She was happy enough to drink the wine and watch Illya with a silly smile on her face. After three glasses and two hours of dry scientific discourse, she was resting on Illya's shoulder, her eyelids drooping shut. Illya didn't mind in the slightest.
"I take my reproductive responsibilities seriously," Minerva declared over her crme caramel. "The future of the human race depends on us." With each determined toss of her head, strands of hair slipped down to obscure her face
"That's very wise of you. We don't all have your self-restraint." Napoleon tucked the stray tendrils behind her ear.
"But everyone should! It's something that many fertile adults forget. If you have an advantageous trait, you owe it to the rest of humanity to reproduce so that it gets passed on to future generations."
A lopsided smile curved Napoleon's lips. "Well, in theory, yes. But I believe that one shouldn't deny the...sensual...aspects either." Silky smooth, with an undercurrent of teasing. "Sex isn't solely about reproduction."
Minerva blinked, spellbound. "Oh, yes. That's true, of course." She blushed. "Physical compatibility is one of the requirements for a successful breeding couple."
"For any couple, period." Napoleon's eyes sought out Illya's.
Illya resisted the urge to tug at his collar.
"That's why we owe it to ourselves to search for the ideal mate. Only selfish people choose to be celibate. They're just hoarding their genetic material for themselves!"
"Ahh." Napoleon nodded, as if carefully absorbing this information. "Did you hear that, Illya?"
"But Illya's an exception because his family is insane," Minerva said. "Passing on his genes would be catastrophic for the human race."
Illya took out his dark glasses from his breast pocket and put them on. He'd seen the odd looks other patrons were giving their table. "Minerva, there's no need to persuade Mr. Solo of the benefits of sexual activity. You're already preaching to the converted."
"Napoleon would find the prospect of celibacy insufferable. He doesn't have the necessary discipline."
A direct hit. Napoleon cocked his head, his attention no longer on his dinner companion.
"That's perfect!" Minerva clutched Napoleon's arm in excitement. "You'll be an ideal father for our future children."
"Discipline." Napoleon lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "Is that what you call it? I think it's cowardice."
Minerva frowned, puzzled. "But it's in the interest of the human race that Illya stays celibate."
"Are you calling me a coward?" Illya asked levelly.
"I think it's cowardly not to go after what you really want. To have something within your very grasp, yet hold back from taking it because of fear or pride or resentment—" He paused, his expression sober. "Inaction is a form of cowardice."
Illya tensed, back on the defensive. He'd put up with the various labels Napoleon had given him in the past, but this time he'd gone too far. The movement made Patricia's head slide off his shoulder. He quickly grabbed her before she hit the table.
Napoleon cocked his head to one side, contemplating the sleeping girl. "Patricia?" he called out. "Wakey, wakey."
Illya gave her a little shake. "Wake up, Patricia."
She blinked, then nuzzled against Illya's shoulder and closed her eyes again.
"Illya, did you jab her with a sleeping dart?"
"I would never do such a thing."
"Hmm." Napoleon frowned. "Remind me never to take you on a double date again."
"I never asked for an invitation."
Minerva looked from one man to the other, vainly trying to make sense of the conversation. "Well, I think Illya is very noble to forgo his right to reproduction. Instead of polluting the gene pool, he's preserving his seed for the sake of humanity!"
"Thank you, Minerva." Illya didn't feel particularly thankful, but some kind of reply was expected.
"Giving up something you never used much in the first place isn't noble: it's just extremely convenient." Napoleon looked at Illya and the dozing Patricia, his mouth a straight line. "We should call it a night. It's probably past your bedtime." He turned to Minerva and smiled warmly. "I wouldn't want you to miss any of your classes."
"It's Saturday tomorrow. I don't have classes. I can stay up later than her." She tossed a disdainful look in Patricia's direction. "And besides, a man with your...experience could teach me a lot about the sensual aspects of reproduction." Her hand toyed with the satiny material of his jacket, clinging to his sleeve.
"I'd be happy to give you some pointers," Napoleon murmured. He twirled a strand of her hair around his fingers.
Illya had heard enough. He couldn't explain the strange sense of revulsion that filled him. There was no reason for him to be jealous. Napoleon hadn't changed. And ultimately, neither had he. That night in Kuala Lumpur was a continent away and several weeks ago. Whatever passed between them then had no relevance here. It was just an aberration, a mistake. Something best forgotten.
He looked down at Patricia. She was dribbling on his jacket.
"Will you need any help looking after sleeping beauty?" Napoleon asked.
"No, I'll be fine. You take Minerva back home. I'll find my way back to the girl's dormitory."
"I left the room key at the front desk. You can pick it up if I get delayed." He held out his hand to Minerva. "Shall we go?"
Illya shook Patricia's shoulder. "Wake up now. It's all over."
She yawned. "Is it?"
"Yes." From the corner of his eye, he saw Minerva and Napoleon walk to the entrance. Napoleon's arm was around her waist.
"Thank goodness. I'm so sleepy." Her head lolled against his shoulder.
Illya pushed the dark glasses up his nose. She wasn't going to make it outside without falling over her feet. "Are you going to be sick?"
"Mmm? No, no."
"Good." He hoisted her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. Luckily she was smaller than he was. Ignoring her giggles and the stares of the other patrons, he held onto her legs and carried her out of the restaurant.
"Patricia, wake up." Illya nudged her shoulder. "We're back at your dorm."
"Don't wanna move. I wanna sleep here."
"Hey, bud!" The cab driver glared from the rear view mirror. "I haven't got all night."
"All right, we're moving." He grabbed Patricia around the waist. "Come on, Patricia. Wouldn't you rather sleep in a nice bed?"
"No. Wanna sleep here."
"But I know a better place for you to sleep." He pulled her against him, and opened the car door.
"No. It's warmer in here." She huddled against his chest.
Illya dragged her out, clutching at shoulder and waist. "It'll be even warmer once we get inside. Come on." With his awkward hold on her, he managed to get her torso, then her legs out. The moment he slammed the door shut, the cab roared off.
Patricia stumbled against him. "My shoe..."
Illya held her by the waist, and looked down. Her right foot was bare. "Where is it?" He couldn't see it on the sidewalk.
"The cab," she answered around a yawn. "My best shoes too. It's all your fault."
Illya sighed. He wasn't even sure which cab company it was. "I'll ring around, if you like—"
"I'm cold! Wanna go to bed." She looped her arms around his neck. "Carry me in."
"All right, all right." Illya lifted her up. "I exist to serve, as usual."
"Good. I am your queen. Obey me or I'll chop your head off!" She giggled. "That was the best bit 'bout French History. La guillotine!"
Inside, the lights were on. The corridor were lined with closed doors on both sides. Illya saw numbers, but no names.
"What's your room number? Patricia!"
A door opened behind him. Illya whirled.
"Wooo! I'm spinning around!" Patricia laughed.
A brunette in a yellow nightie looked them over. "You again! Haven't you got anything better to do? Go play with your pals in the boy's dorm."
"I intend to, after I've deposited Miss Darling in her room. Do you know where it is?"
"One forty-seven." She watched Illya carry off Patricia, her lips pursed.
The dark glasses made it difficult for Illya to see the door numbers. He had to slow down and squint at a few to make sure he was heading in the right direction.
"Here it is!" He put Patricia down against the wall and knocked. "Do you have the key?"
Patricia slid to the floor, her legs buckling under her. "In my bag."
Exasperated, Illya opened the bag, found the keys and dragged her inside. There were two neatly made beds, one decorated with frilly white cushions.
"My bed." She fell on it, a blissful smile on her face. Her floral blue-and-white dress slid up, revealing her thighs.
Illya pulled off her remaining shoe. The dress would be creased by morning, but he was too weary to undress her. "I wish you goodnight, and pleasant dreams."
"I'm cold. Where are the blankets?"
"They're underneath you." He pulled at the bedspread, but she was pinning it down with her weight. Finally, he grabbed a coat from the closet and draped it over her. "There. That should keep you warm."
She clutched his hand, her eyes suddenly wide open. "Stay with me tonight. Keep me warm."
"My hands are cold." He tried to pull back, but her fingers tightened around his.
"Mmm." She pressed his palm against her cheek. "You're right. Maybe we could warm each other up." Her lips parted as she pressed kisses over his fingertips and palm.
Illya knew a proposition when he saw one. And even though he wanted to leave, he wasn't made of stone either.
Patricia guided his hand down her neck, to her collarbone and breast. Even through the material of her dress, she felt firm to the touch.
"I-I should go." But his legs wouldn't obey him, and his fingers were in no hurry to relinquish her.
"Why?" Her voice was soft and breathy. She pulled him onto the bed, and looped her arms around his neck as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "What are you afraid of?"
Coward. Napoleon had all but thrown the label at him.
"I'm not afraid." Her lips were only inches from his.
Inaction is a form of cowardice.
He bent down and kissed her. It dislodged the glasses and he pulled them off. His hand molded her breast, her waist, her hip. Warm and soft. He pushed her back on the bed with uncharacteristic determination. He didn't fear this. He'd done this before. He'd been through his basic training.
He was not a coward.
She was pliant, unresisting in his arms. He tasted her throat, his hand slid up her thigh.
"Illya..." Her hands clutched at the material of his jacket, skidding along the fabric.
Ignoring her attempts to undress him, he reached behind for the zipper. It almost caught the material as she arched and twisted against him. The bra hooks posed a bigger problem, and the way she nibbled at his neck wasn't helping his concentration.
She giggled, taking pity on his futile efforts. "Let me." She slipped both hands behind her back and pulled. "Ta da!"
"Thank you." He cupped her breasts, lifting them up. They were not large, but they easily filled his palms. Without hesitation, he bent down and took one nipple in his mouth. She gasped. Her fingers moved through his hair, clenching spasmodically.
His hands moved over the crumpled material of her dress, now bunched around her waist. Sliding his fingers up her thigh, he felt her trembling. She offered no resistance, her panting breaths the only sound in the room. The flimsy briefs she wore were no barrier to his fingers. He watched as she writhed beneath him, her face flushed, her eyes glazed. She moaned softly.
But he felt nothing. He was physically aroused, but his mind was blank. He couldn't remember her name. He had no idea why he was doing this with a woman he barely knew.
He didn't want her.
He withdrew his fingers and staggered from the bed. "I...I'm sorry."
"What?" Her eyes were enormous in her face, her lipstick smudged. "Did... did I do something wrong?"
Illya cleared his throat, and shook his head. "It's late. I-I have to go."
"Why?" She was bewildered, confused.
He looked at the door, wishing he were on the other side of it. "Mr. Waverly would never forgive me for coming in late tomorrow." He caught sight of his glasses on the floor, and picked them up. "I'm sorry for...for taking advantage of you under such circumstances."
She flushed bright red and pulled her dress down, then grabbed the coat to cover her breasts. Her eyes were downcast. "I'm...I'm sorry too."
"Not as much as I am." She looked so young on the bed, vulnerable and defenseless. Guilt made him look away again.
"Will I...will I ever see you again?"
The aching note of hope in her voice was like acid on his conscience. He had never mastered the art of letting down a woman gently. He opened his mouth, but words failed him.
"It would be nice to have something to remember this night. My first date with a real gentleman." She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. "I don't even have the rose you gave me."
"There are other roses, and much better gentlemen than I." He quickly bent down and kissed her forehead, ignoring her parted lips. "Good night, Patricia."
She turned away and faced the wall. "Good night, Illya."
The hotel was only a couple of blocks away from the campus. It would take less time to walk than ring and wait for a cab, so Illya began moving. He wanted to get as far away from the girl's dorm as possible.
It was a moonlit night. The air was cool and crisp, the grass wet underfoot. His new leather shoes were losing their gloss with each step.
Illya hunched his shoulders, grateful for the jacket. He bunched his hands in his pockets to warm his icy fingers. He was cold. He was numb. He couldn't feel anything. Not even with a sweet young thing like Patricia Darling. She had been so willing; she would have given him anything. He remembered her sad eyes, her brave attempt to regain her dignity.
I think it's cowardly not to go after what you really want.
But he didn't want Patricia.
Fool, he berated himself. What were you trying to prove? Napoleon doesn't care what you're doing tonight.
Napoleon would be with Minerva now. He wouldn't have stopped at heavy petting. He wouldn't have had second thoughts. No, Napoleon enjoyed his physical pleasures too much. He enjoyed being mindless.
At this very moment, Minerva was curled in his arms, eugenics the last thing on her mind. Her lips would be parted, her eyes glazed, as if she'd been offered a glimpse of nirvana. Strange how kissing Napoleon elicited much the same expression in so many different women. Prim virgins melted, Thrush femme fatales swooned. Minerva didn't stand a chance.
He remembered the way Napoleon had looked at him in the hotel room, his gaze as heavy and intent as a physical caress. Would he have faired any better?
A gust of wind ruffled his hair, and the cold bit into his skin through the layers of cloth. Cold. He felt so cold, inside and out. If he'd stayed in Patricia's bed, at least he'd be physically warm now. But emotional entanglements were unavoidable; he knew that from previous experience.
He quickened his pace. Napoleon's sensate-driven approach to life wasn't for him.
There was no one to open the hotel doors for him. The lobby was deserted, apart from a cleaner vacuuming the carpet. A woman at the front desk was reading a book, her chin propped up with one hand. She quickly came to attention when Illya cleared his throat.
No, the keys to Mr. Solo's room were not at the front desk. He'd picked them up an hour ago.
"Do you remember if he had a companion with him?"
"No, he was alone." Her eyes wandered over his suit, lingered on his mouth.
Another reason Illya disliked wearing a dinner jacket so much: the striking contrast of white shirt against unrelieved black was a sure-fire way to attract attention. Unwanted feminine attention in particular.
In the lift, he leaned against the wall and folded his arms. Minerva must have held out against the formidable Solo charm. Such a shame, since Napoleon had gone to all that trouble to dress up for her, order the rose, book the table at the restaurant. His arsenal of weapons had failed him tonight.
Illya smiled, briefly cheered by this. It almost made up for the nuisance of sharing the room with him.
Illya knocked when he reached the hotel room.
"Who is it?"
"It's me, Illya. Let me in."
Illya checked both ends of the corridor. Luckily no one was around to witness him loitering. Impatiently he pushed his face up to the peephole. "My friend, I knock on this door in deference to your sensibilities. Given the choice, I'd rather burn through the lock using the incendiary thread of my tie."
Locks rattled, and Napoleon opened the door. "But you forget you're not wearing an U.N.C.L.E. issue tie." His sharp eyes looked Illya over. "You took your time getting back."
Illya shrugged out of his jacket as he entered the room. "I was detained at the girl's dorm." He noticed the tension in Napoleon's jaw, in stark contrast to the informality of his clothes. He had removed his jacket; his vest was unbuttoned. The top button of his shirt was undone, the tie hung loosely around his neck. "I didn't mean to keep you up waiting for me."
"It's nothing. I would've woken up when you came back." Napoleon's eyes narrowed as they focused on his mouth. "I see you've been busy tonight."
"Uh-huh. It's written on your face."
Or more correctly, smeared on his face. One corner of his mouth and his jaw had a smear of pink lipstick. Illya grimaced at the reflection in the wardrobe mirror. No wonder the girl at the front desk was staring.
"Here." Napoleon stood behind him, holding a white handkerchief. Illya tried to take it, but Napoleon wouldn't let him. With slow and deliberate care, he wiped all traces of lipstick away.
"You did this for me years ago, remember?"
"Yes." Illya bowed his head. It was humiliating to be caught out like this.
The cloth lingered over Illya's lower lip. "Did you enjoy it?"
"I'm sure it wasn't as enjoyable as your evening with Minerva."
"We exchanged chaste goodnight kisses, nothing more. Dean Dwight is a very light sleeper."
The intimacy of Napoleon's touch was too much. Illya moved away. "Thank you."
"My pleasure." Napoleon's eyes glinted in the semi-darkness of the bedroom.
Illya wanted to scrub his mouth. His lips tingled. Outside, they'd been chilled by the cold, but now they were sensitized and alive. Kissing Patricia hadn't affected him like this. Returning Napoleon's steady gaze, Illya knew that tonight had changed nothing between them. The attraction was still as strong as ever.
He almost wished he had gone all the way with Patricia. Maybe it would have taken the edge off this crazy yearning.
"I need a shower." It was inane, but he had to fill the tense silence between them.
Napoleon almost smiled. "Go right ahead. I'll still be here waiting."
In the bathroom, Illya allowed the warm shower spray to pound his body, awakening nerve endings and easing tense muscles. He lathered the soap over his neck and shoulders, scrubbed at his hair, removing any traces of Patricia from his body. His movements were slow, careful, unhurried. Delaying the inevitable.
He brushed his teeth and shaved for the second time in twenty-four hours, a record for him. He dressed in his pajamas, making sure to do up every button. And when he'd finished every possible grooming task he could think of, Illya sat on the toilet seat and clenched his hands into fists. How was he going to share a bed with Napoleon tonight? He'd be close enough to smell Napoleon's aftershave permeating the sheets. Close enough to feel his physical warmth. Close enough to hear him breathe. Close enough to touch.
His fingers unclenched. How he wanted to touch.
Napoleon had looked stunning tonight. Even now, there was an aura of dangerous sexuality about him. What would it be like to be his lover for one night?
No. Illya clamped down on the thought. He knew that mindless pleasure for its own sake wasn't for him.
But this was Napoleon, a man who fascinated him one moment, frustrated him the next. It could never be mindless between them. He knew Napoleon too well. And Napoleon knew him. Self-deception was impossible.
So what would it be like?
Illya didn't know. And he wasn't sure if he wanted to find out. But he couldn't sit here all night wondering.
Finally he took a deep breath in, and opened the door. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The single bedside lamp was the only illumination in the room. Tobacco smoke wafted through the air.
Napoleon was still dressed in his shirt, vest and trousers. The tie was gone. He lounged in the middle of the bed as if he owned it, a cigarette between his lips.
"I thought you'd stopped smoking."
Napoleon took the cigarette away and exhaled. White smoke curled from his nostrils. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"You said that you were taking your last puff in Malaysia."
"I tried for a while, but the craving was a problem. The more I resisted, the more intense the craving became. It developed into an obsession." He gave Illya a sidelong glance from beneath hooded eyes. "In the end, I decided it was best to crush the craving at the source."
"By giving in? I thought you wanted to stop."
"I still do. I don't have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth all the time. But now and then I feel the urge to indulge myself without worrying about the consequences." He took another appreciative drag from the cigarette.
Illya knew how to smoke, but he'd never been enamored of the habit. His brief stay in Chaqua was the one time he'd smoked regularly. It was the only way to disguise the stench of the prison. But engaging in the habit while surrounded by all the creature comforts of Western society...it struck Illya as incredibly decadent. And annoying.
But annoyance was good. Anything to distract him from this obsession with Napoleon. "Which side of the bed is mine?"
"Whichever side you like." Napoleon took the cigarette out of his mouth, watched the glowing tip curl into ash. "Does my smoking bother you?"
"In bed, yes!"
He inhaled for the last time, then crushed the butt in the ashtray. "I wish I could say that I'm sorry, but I'm not."
Deliberate rudeness. Annoyance crackled into anger. "What's the matter with you? I can't believe your self-control is so poor."
Napoleon took out another cigarette. "I can't sleep tonight."
"Why don't you stop smoking first?"
Napoleon picked up the lighter.
Illya seized Napoleon's wrist. "I said stop."
Napoleon's hand jerked. His thumb flicked the lighter, illuminating the space between them with a single flame. Half of Napoleon's face glowed with a burnished tinge. Shadows cast his cleft chin and jaw into sharp relief, making him look unearthly, demonic. A stray curl of hair, normally jet-black, gleamed chestnut as it fell over his forehead. He might have been a bronze statue, except for his eyes. Normally hazel brown, they were now alight with a flickering gold gleam.
Napoleon swallowed, a nervous movement that betrayed the inhuman façade. The flame wavered. It was the trembling of his hand.
"I can't, Illya." His voice was low and husky. "I crave too much."
Illya couldn't speak. His mouth felt parched. He couldn't put it into words, but he understood. He'd wrestled with his craving for Napoleon for so long. It never occurred to him that Napoleon would be affected, too.
Harsh lines bracketed Napoleon's mouth. More lines fanned out from the corners of his eyes and between his brows. His eyes were too bright, as if he were in the grip of a fever.
Illya knew what that was like.
Without warning, the flame winked out. Napoleon threw the lighter and cigarette aside, and hauled Illya on the bed. Then his mouth descended, his tongue thrusting inside. He tasted bitter, of burnt tobacco leaves. It jolted Illya: Patricia tasted much sweeter than this. But the warm texture of Napoleon's skin, the persuasive sensuality of his lips and tongue, the solid muscles beneath the material of the shirt...the vortex of sensations exhilarated Illya, overriding all else. He inhaled, freely breathing the scent of tobacco, the hint of aftershave.
This time Illya could feel everything. He'd never felt so alive before.
"You taste much nicer than tobacco." Napoleon rested his forehead against Illya's, his eyes closed, his chest heaving as if he'd run a marathon. "I've waited for you to touch me the way you did that night. Waited for days, then weeks, until I was half out of my mind."
"I...I touched you? When?" Illya could feel Napoleon's breath on his mouth, a delicate sensation that made his lips tingle in anticipation. He leaned forward to kiss Napoleon again.
"You started it." Napoleon lightly nibbled at his lips. "Is this what you crave, Illya? Me?"
Illya clutched at Napoleon's shirt, and kissed the skin revealed by the open collar, tracing the corded muscles of his throat. The skin was damp with perspiration. His tongue darted out. Salty-sweet.
Napoleon trembled. He gripped Illya's hair, pulling him up. "That wasn't for Miss Darling, was it?"
Illya shifted, uncertainty warring with excitement. "No." Suspicion penetrated the haze of desire. "Were you thinking of Minerva?"
"No." Napoleon's hands were unbuttoning his pajama top. "I want you." He pressed a trail of kisses down his neck, along his collarbone to his chest. "Let me show you how much." His lips curved in a wicked smile as he pulled the material off Illya's shoulders.
It should have reassured, but it only brought up unwelcome questions. Illya gripped Napoleon's wrists to stop the distracting touches. "Then why the suits, the roses?"
"I needed to be sure." Hair falling into his eyes, Napoleon was suddenly very serious. "I don't want to be used as a standby because you've lucked out with the ladies. So I chose the perfect tuxedo for you to wear. I gave you Patricia to ease the edge of your lust." He lifted Illya's chin, making it impossible for him to look away. "Tonight, you have no more excuses, partner mine. You aren't drugged or concussed, you've already bedded a willing female—"
Illya jerked his chin away. He'd been manipulated. Tricked. "You planned all this? This entire evening... was it some kind of test with you as reward?"
"To put it bluntly, yes. I don't want to be a substitute in bed, Illya."
"A substitute? When have I ever..." He stopped. Patricia had been a substitute tonight.
"Malaysia." Napoleon's voice was softer, almost soothing. "You criticize me for being mindless, but that's exactly what you were that night. I loved how uninhibited you were, but you didn't have a clue who you were with. We're going to remedy that tonight." His hand moved over Illya's shoulders, down his chest to toy with one nipple. The other hand snaked around the nape of his neck.
Illya bent his head, allowing Napoleon to stroke him. There was something magical about his touch. "Tell me what happened."
"You don't remember?" Napoleon rubbed the nipple with his thumb. Illya watched as it hardened in response, eager for more.
"I remember nothing. If you're going to make me accountable for what happened in Kuala Lumpur—"
"I certainly am."
"—then I deserve to know what I did."
"I agree." He stood up and began unbuttoning his vest. His movements were efficient as he dealt with buttons, cufflinks and zip.
"Are you going tell me?" Illya asked, watching from the bed.
"All in good time." The undershirt came off in a single graceful movement, delineating the muscles of his torso and shoulders. The trousers slid easily off his hips, his briefs following the same downward path.
Napoleon didn't look as imposing without his clothing, even though his musculature was respectable. Dark hairs sparsely scattered over his chest, a thin line arrowed down the center of his abdomen to his groin. His penis was half-erect and pointing toward him. Illya absorbed these details with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity.
"Do you like watching me?" Napoleon asked, a hint of a smile on his lips.
"I don't remember seeing you like this."
"It was dark the first time. I couldn't see you either." Napoleon came to the bed, unselfconscious in his nudity. "Do you like what you see?"
'Like' was too pallid to describe it. What he'd felt for Patricia was a mere shadow of the desire he felt now.
Napoleon's eyes were dark and yearning, his lips were curved in a whimsical half smile.
Illya didn't know what he was waiting for. But he knew what he wanted. He grasped Napoleon's head, and pulled him down. They bumped noses before Illya found Napoleon's mouth. Hot and bitter, yet strangely addictive. He pressed closer, his hands roamed freely over Napoleon's skin. Solid muscles and sinew...raw strength and power, and all his to explore. His hands grew bold as he caressed the long muscles of his back, the indentations of his spine, the cleft of his butt.
Napoleon grasped his chin. His fingertips pressed into the underside of Illya's jaw. "Wait..." His breath gusted across Illya's cheek.
Illya pressed his lips against Napoleon's neck and bit the warm flesh.
Napoleon shivered. "It's my turn to do that."
Illya ignored him. His hands moved restlessly over Napoleon's back, his fingers digging into his shoulder blades.
Napoleon ran his fingers through Illya's hair, smiling. "Living gold...more beautiful than I imagined."
Impatiently Illya shook his hair free, but it didn't disturb Napoleon in the least. He kissed Illya again, and bore him down against the mattress. Their skin touched from chest to abdomen, Illya's pants the only barrier between them.
Illya was trapped, exactly where he wanted to be. He felt Napoleon's erection prod his thigh, the heavy weight enveloping him, and it was wonderful. Yes! This was what he wanted: this freedom to touch and explore Napoleon, to make him tremble and moan. With his hips he arched up; with his hands he swept down. Guided by the line of fine hairs arrowing down his chest and abdomen, Illya traced it to the source...
Success. Napoleon jerked as Illya found his target.
But Napoleon's erection hardened in Illya's hands, at odds with his words. Illya fondled and squeezed, fingers curling around the shaft.
Napoleon froze for an instant, caught up in the sensations. His breathing was erratic, and he shivered as Illya found a particularly sensitive spot. Then he shook his head, as if rousing himself from a trance. Grabbing Illya's wrists, he pinned them against the bed.
"What is it?" Illya shifted beneath him, restless for friction. He was too aroused to be intimidated by Napoleon's hold.
"It's my turn, Illya. I want to do to you what you did to me." His eyes were smoky, partly obscured by stray bangs. "I can't if you touch me like that."
"Then what are you waiting for?"
Napoleon released him. "Lie on your side for me."
Illya obeyed, puzzled. Didn't Napoleon want to be touched by him?
Napoleon shifted behind him. There was a pause, then Napoleon embraced him from behind. His erection pressed into the cleft of Illya's clothed buttocks.
Illya stiffened in surprise. He hadn't done this in years. "Is this what we—"
"Hush." Napoleon rested his cheek against Illya's and hugged him close. His hands stroked Illya's abdomen and chest.
This wasn't exactly what Illya wanted. He could see his erection thrusting against the material of his pants, impatient for attention.
Napoleon's mouth moved over Illya's shoulder, his tongue tracing whorls against the skin. One of his hands played with a nipple, the other moved over his navel in widening circles.
Illya swallowed. The slow caresses were stimulating, but he was already aroused. He shifted against Napoleon, restless for more. The weight of Napoleon's cock pressed close against him, but he didn't care. He pushed back again.
Napoleon bit his shoulder, then soothed it with his tongue. "Illya..."
"You're torturing me!"
"Now you know what you did to me. You touched me like this, but you wouldn't let me come." Napoleon's hands dipped beneath his pajama pants, and finally grasped him. "Lucky for you, I'm not so cruel."
Illya gasped as he was finally stroked with a firm grip. He thrust his hips to increase the friction. The pajama pants slid down with his movements, and he tried to kick them off.
"That's it." Napoleon helped tug them off with one hand, his other hand fondling Illya's testicles.
"Ahhh!" Illya trembled, then sank back against Napoleon. Napoleon's arms coiled around him again, a welcome confinement. His hands resumed their stroking. Illya sighed and began thrusting again. This was Napoleon touching him, taking him to the heights. Even though he couldn't see him, he could feel him all around, breathe in the mixture of aftershave, tobacco and musk of his arousal.
He arched back, allowing himself to relax and enjoy it. He would have liked to do this to Napoleon, but there was a unique pleasure to be found in temporary submission. The warm bulk of Napoleon against his back, the unmistakable friction of the erection against his butt; here was physical evidence of Napoleon's excitement. "I did this?" he managed between panting breaths.
"Yesss." The sibilant hiss tickled Illya's neck. "You like?"
Illya pushed back. He could feel Napoleon's cock sliding between his thighs, teasing the sensitive skin beneath his balls. Unexpected and sweet, it sent a keen jolt of pleasure through him.
Napoleon made a low sound deep in his throat. "You're doing it again, making me lose control." He stroked Illya's hip, and thrust within the makeshift crevice. "I want you so much."
Illya gasped and nodded blindly. His penis ached and throbbed, primed by Napoleon's skilful hands. He had never allowed himself to imagine this, but at that moment he could deny Napoleon nothing.
There was a fumbling sound beneath the pillow, then on the nightstand. "I don't know...where I put the lube." Napoleon buried a groan in Illya's neck. "My jacket! It's in the pocket of the damn jacket!"
Illya almost laughed, torn between relief and amusement. The devil would never be guilty of such human frailty. He clutched Napoleon's arms. "Next time..." He pushed back suggestively, and sighed as Napoleon took the hint.
"Next time." Napoleon's arms embraced Illya and grasped hold of him again. "I like the sound of that."
Caught between the firm strokes of Napoleon's hands, and the erotic friction against his inner thighs, Illya couldn't escape. He clutched the sheets, allowing himself to be pleasured and used for pleasure. It wasn't quite penetration, but it was close enough. The idea of being bent to Napoleon's will was exciting. He rebelled at the idea of being controlled, but yet...it felt incredibly good.
He imagined their positions reversed, with him thrusting into Napoleon, and Napoleon groaning and trembling beneath him. Rippling muscles, lean power...and all of it obedient to his whim.
His cock pulsed at the thought. Next time...
Napoleon felt it. His rhythm became faster, his hands guided by the thrust of Illya's hips. He gripped Illya tightly, as if he never wanted to let him go.
The climax was sudden and sharp. Illya stiffened, barely aware of the semen splashing over his abdomen and between his thighs. Behind him, Napoleon buried a groan against his shoulder, hot breath fanning his neck. After a few moments, he released Illya.
Illya rolled on his back, still gasping. He ached below, a sensation that was not quite pain or pleasure. Next to him, Napoleon's eyes were shut, his chest heaving.
Lifting himself up on one arm, Illya lightly touched Napoleon's lips. "Did I really do all that to you?"
"Mm-hmm." Napoleon opened one eye and smiled. "You know, I didn't believe you at first. I was convinced you were playing some kind of waiting game. So I decided to play along."
Illya smiled slightly. "And I thought you were the one playing the game!"
Napoleon lifted himself up, and returned with a hand towel for them both. "It was a frustrating stalemate, which was why I arranged tonight's date. When you took so long to return, I was pacing the room, convinced that you'd chosen to spend the night with her."
The mention of the date brought back uncomfortable memories for Illya. "You shouldn't have involved her in this."
"Who, Patricia?" Napoleon ran the towel over Illya's thighs, his touch possessive and sure. "I merely invited her out for dinner with us. What you did with her afterwards was up to you." He brushed the towel over Illya's penis and watched it twitch. "Did you enjoy being with her?"
Illya grimaced, remembering. "She was willing..."
"And you weren't?" Napoleon lifted a mocking brow. "Surely you weren't immune to her charms."
"I wasn't exactly immune—"
"Well, I hope not. There's a lot to be said for the mindless pleasure of sex with a willing—"
"But I couldn't." Illya stopped Napoleon's movements with the towel. It was starting to become too distracting.
Napoleon blinked. "You didn't?"
"No, because she wasn't the person I wanted. I didn't want to be with her tonight. In that way, we are different." Illya lay back on the bed, lost in thought. "Would you have bedded Minerva if Dean Dwight hadn't been at the door?"
"Once, yes. I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But remember the Five Daughters Affair?"
"We encountered several attractive young women, yet I wasn't that interested in any of them. I was more preoccupied by whether you would find any of them attractive. You seemed pretty close to one of them...and I didn't like it at all." He played with Illya's hair. "I guess I was jealous of her."
"Really? Not of me?" Illya couldn't quite believe his ears.
"No. I didn't want you to be with her. I didn't want you to be with Patricia either. You'll never know how close I was to charging into the girl's dorm." He sighed. "Waiting for you to come back was one of the most difficult things I've ever done."
"But you paired us up! You even made me wear that dinner jacket—"
"Tuxedo," Napoleon corrected. "And it looked fantastic on you. I wanted you to look irresistible tonight." He touched Illya's brow, traced his nose. "Which you did. It took considerable willpower for me not to take you home myself."
Illya seized his wrist. "I never want you to manipulate me like that ever again. I'm not a doll for you to play with."
Napoleon smiled, not the slightest bit repentant. "Yes, Illya." His dark eyes were rich and warm. "So you proved me wrong, after all."
"I did? About what?"
"I expected you to run into my welcome arms after slaking your thirst at Miss Darling's generous font. Since you left her virtue intact, how do I know that you didn't come to me out of sheer animal lust?"
Illya frowned at him. "What are you talking about?"
"Why, you might have been so desperate that you would've settled with anything animal or even vegetable. Like a durian fruit, for example."
"Durian? Why would I want a durian?"
"Exactly. I've asked myself the very same question. Durian, sex...the connection is pretty nebulous to me."
Illya ran a hand through his hair, truly confused. "Napoleon, I don't want a durian. Or Patricia."
"Good. I couldn't supply either of them at this late hour, even if you did."
"I enjoy the 'mindless pleasure of sex,' as you term it, but I prefer to share it with a person I know and trust. Having sex with any willing person is not the same."
Napoleon nodded. "I know that now. A wise man told me that one humid night in Malaysia." He smiled, a sweet, almost tentative smile. "Will I do?"
There was only one way to answer that. Illya pulled Napoleon into his arms, and kissed him with lingering gentleness. They didn't need their defenses or weapons anymore. The battle was over, and it was time to savor the victory.
"Yes, Napoleon, you'll definitely do."