Thanks to my betas who did not always agree: Astrid, Di, Jane and Sarah in alphabetical order. Any mistakes are entirely their fault. (just kidding) This story has appeared nowhere else.
"Wake up, sleepyhead."
His friend's familiar baritone quelled the panic, though he looked to his gun on the bedside table and struggled briefly against the hands pinioning his wrists. He glanced at the radio alarm clock next to his gun and squinted to read the time, which glowed an eerie green in the early morning gloom. Five-fifteen. Why shouldn't he be sleepy? Or asleep?
"Happy birthday," Napoleon Solo said.
Illya Kuryakin groaned and averted his head. "Thank you. Please go away now."
Napoleon smelled of autumn—crisp and dry—but was dressed like winter in a black cashmere overcoat. A white silk opera scarf hung loosely from under his lapels. Illya surmised he was wearing a tuxedo underneath his coat, though he could not be sure. Napoleon liked to dress up and created all sorts of occasions for his formal wear.
"Oh, but I have a present. Two as a matter of fact."
"Happy birthday," two voices chorused
Illya lifted his head toward the sound, pulling against Napoleon's immobilizing hands.
Two girls stood in his living room. One wore a short white mink coat and white go-go boots, her silvery blonde hair piled on her head, her makeup applied artfully but apparently with a trowel. The other wore a longer sable coat, her blonde hair similarly arranged, her eyes outlined in black against an otherwise scrubbed face. She reminded Illya of an in-tourist guide—severe, well dressed and eager to put her best foot forward. The two girls seemed incongruous in his apartment, like Las Vegas showgirls lost on the subway. His sleepy brain could not process their presence.
His apartment, now not much more than an asymmetrical room with vague perimeters, had been grand in its time, but was only a memory of its former self, subdivided after the Second World War and once again in the fifties.
Illya nodded a vague greeting toward the girls from the slight elevation of his bedroom, defined only by the double bed and a small platform a step up from the living room. At the moment it felt like a stage.
What were these girls doing here? Illya glanced up at Napoleon waiting for an explanation as his apartment sprang to life.
The girl in the white mink stepped forward and sang "Bonne Anniversaire" in faltering French, her voice high and fervid. The one in the sable sang "Stol Lot" and followed her performance by whispering "Happy Birthday" in Russian, like a Polish Marilyn Monroe. Then Napoleon introduced a song he said he had sung in the fourth grade at Our Lady of Ransom elementary school.
This is Illya's birthday, happy happy birthday, we sing happy birthday to you today. May our lady bless you, on this happy birthday. May our lady bless you on every day.
Napoleon bowed his head after his rendition as if expecting sustained applause.
Illya would not have applauded even if he could have and blinked instead, once again looking at the girls, who stood smiling at him. They seemed impossibly tall as if their up-swept hair might touch the high ceiling of his living room. Then he looked at Napoleon, who still held his wrists, though loosely now. "Thank you," Illya said. "I'm going back to sleep. I'm sure you'll understand if I don't see you out."
The girl in the white mink ascended the step to Illya's bedroom. Her boots reverberated like castanets against the hard wood floor as she sat down next to Napoleon on the bed. "He really is cute," she said as if amazed.
The other girl also crossed the blurred line into the raised bedroom, pursing her lips as if measuring the value of a cut of beef in the marketplace and refusing to react to its value.
"Would I kid about such a thing?" Napoleon asked. "I told you. Cute as a button."
"Handsome men often have trolls for friends," the girl beside Illya observed sagely.
Illya rolled his eyes. "Thank you again," he said. "Thank you for the songs. Thank you, Napoleon. Thank you, ladies." His tone implied they were hardly that.
"Illya, we've just started," Napoleon objected, frowning. "This is Simone," he said indicating the girl seated next to him on the bed. And Irina." He inclined his chin toward the girl who straddled the border between the living room and the bedroom. Illya glanced at each of them in turn and said nothing. "Now, where is the champagne?"
Irina pulled a bottle of Dom Perignon from beneath her coat and unwrapped the foil surrounding its neck, counting out loud to six in heavily accented English as she unwound the wire. It made hardly a sound as she uncorked it, the champagne too well bred for much of a pop. "You have glasses for this?" she asked Illya, waving the bottle at him.
"On the shelf above the sink," Illya replied, and she found them, efficient as a thief.
"Only two?" she asked, rummaging through the open shelves of Illya's inadequate kitchen.
"Yes," Illya said.
"They are beautiful." She examined the champagne flutes appraisingly, like a girl filling out her bridal registry at Bloomingdale's. "Baccarat?"
"How much cost?" Irina asked, not nearly as refined or silent as the bottle of champagne.
"They were a gift," Illya replied. "And I am going back to sleep." He narrowed his eyes at Irina. "And I can count to two. I expect to see two glasses when I awaken, no matter how you choose to divide them."
"Napoleon said you are Russian. And so you will want to drink."
Illya sighed and shook his head. "I have been in America long enough and I do not drink in the morning like these Russians you know."
Napoleon released Illya's wrists as if issuing a challenge. Did Napoleon think he would rush for the bottle or perhaps leap to defend his fine crystal? Instead, Illya turned from the three of them and buried his face into his pillow, curling in a fetal position and yawning theatrically.
"Don't be such a spoilsport," Napoleon said. "This is your special day. May the ladies here bless it."
Illya smiled into his pillow and allowed his friend to stroke his hair and even pull on it a bit. Other hands snaked between his legs, pointed nails digging into his upper thigh and he jumped away, growling in displeasure. He slid out of bed and retreated toward the bathroom, grateful for the recent chill in the weather. He was modestly dressed in light blue pajamas; if it had been any warmer out he might have been naked. "Napoleon?" He stopped at the bathroom door, holding it open for his friend.
"Will you excuse us for a moment," Napoleon said, following Illya inside.
They negotiated the small space with an ease born of spending too much time in each other's company, an economy of movement as graceful as a ballet. Illya relieved himself and washed his hands and his face, then brushed his teeth. He shaved with a straight-edged razor his eyes intent upon his reflection. Napoleon kept out of his way anticipating every move. Illya finally sat on the pedestal sink, facing his friend. "What's this all about?" he asked.
Napoleon removed his overcoat and set it on the rim of the bathtub. Sure enough, he was wearing a tuxedo, his bow tie askew, his ruffled shirt rumpled and somewhat the worse for wear. "It's your birthday present," he explained, excusing himself with quick bow. He also used the toilet. Without instruction, Illya leaned aside so Napoleon could wash his hands, but stayed seated on the sink.
He surmised from Napoleon's appearance he had not woken up to this idea. Not that he was drunk; he never really drank that much, but he had been up all night and was hardly as sober as the proverbial judge. "How about cufflinks, a tie, a book, dinner?"
"What did you give me on my birthday? Do you even know when my birthday is?"
Illya made a face, outraged. When had their friendship extended to exchanging presents? And when was Napoleon's birthday? January something or other. "I'm sure I must have given you something." He looked into Napoleon's dark eyes that glinted back with humor. "January tenth, isn't that right?" He tried to sound sure.
"Very good. And you got me nothing at all." Napoleon said, leaning forward so that his nose almost touched Illya's.
"Is this your revenge then for my neglect?"
Napoleon took a step back and folded his arms as he leaned against the wall. "You've seemed a little backed up."
Napoleon shrugged in explanation. "You know. Cranky. Crabby."
"Frustrated? Sexually frustrated?"
"That's it." Napoleon tapped his own forehead as if the thought had just occurred to him.
"Oh." So his lack of sexual activity over the past few months had given Napoleon this bright idea. "Oh," he said again. "So you've brought me whores?"
"Call girls, my friend."
"Expensive whores," Illya clarified.
"They are that."
Illya smiled back. "They make me uncomfortable. I'm not like you."
Napoleon bristled at the remark, wiggling a bit in displeasure. "I went to a lot of trouble. Did you know today is a holy day of obligation?"
"Do you mean Halloween? I still have a few Baby Ruths left if you and the girls are trick or treating. I didn't have many callers last night and I only ate a few." Illya stared at his friend in confusion, unaware Halloween held any religious significance.
"No." Napoleon almost moaned the word and pushed himself away from the wall, both hands gripping either side of the sink where Illya sat. "That was yesterday. It's All Saints' Day today—a day you have to go to Mass—like a Sunday. I used to be a daily communicant when I went to Our Lady of Ransom."
"Mass every day and the sacraments."
Illya pitched his eyes heavenward as if searching for a deity on the water-stained ceiling. "Take them to Mass then. Revisit your childhood. Let me go back to sleep"
"You're not normal. Most men—"
Illya glared at him. "Most men what? So I should go out there and do what most men would do? Are you going to watch or participate? I'm not comfortable with either scenario nor am I convinced either side of it is what normal men would do."
"They're your present. I'll just read the paper. I won't watch."
"Napoleon! I don't even have a proper bedroom. You will watch; the news isn't that riveting. Did you even bring a paper? I never thought of you as a voyeur—are you sure this isn't your present?"
"You are so difficult to please." Napoleon shoved away from the sink and opened the bathroom door. "Do either of you know how to cook?" he called out. "Could you make us breakfast?"
The girls giggled and Simone called back: "Marry me and I'll be happy to learn."
Napoleon laughed. "How about coffee? I think my friend has a coffee pot." Napoleon closed the door. "You're wound as tight as a clock. I thought maybe I could redirect all that complaining."
"With a Polish girl who thinks Russians are drunks and a French girl who is American?"
"You said you were lonely."
Illya held Napoleon's gaze for a beat. So that was it? Why had he ever opened his mouth? Confession was not good for the soul.
"Illya, I tried to find a Russian girl," Napoleon explained. "Irina said she could speak Russian. Don't you speak Polish?"
Illya shook his head. "No. Why would I learn Polish? They learned Russian."
"Jeez," Napoleon snorted, "and we're the imperialist pigs."
One eyebrow shot up as if issuing a warning. "It's just how it works. I don't speak Polish and she can, at the very least, say "Happy Birthday" in Russian. I didn't make the rules. If you'll notice we all speak English. That, in itself, should tell you something about imperialism."
"Ah, forget imperialism, sorry to have brought it up." Napoleon again folded his arms and resumed his place against the wall opposite Illya. "I'm sure you'll grow on her. Once she gets to know you."
"She's not going to get to know me. I'm going to take a shower and when I'm finished I expect to find my apartment empty of all presents."
Napoleon frowned, staring at the floor, a tragic expression shadowing his face. "Please, don't be rude. And I bet you took a shower last night." Using the wall for leverage, Napoleon butted himself forward and sniffed at Illya like a theatrical hound dog. "You smell divine."
"Thank you." Illya muttered, splaying his right hand against Napoleon's chest and giving him a gentle shove. "If you want them, you can have them. I'd rather be alone."
"I vant to be alone," Napoleon vamped. "That's your problem, that's why you're lonely. You don't get out enough. You wouldn't even talk to that girl a few weeks ago."
Illya shook his head. He remembered the girl Napoleon was talking about, the one he had refused to chat up, the one who made him ache with unaccustomed and useless nostalgia. The easiest way to deflect Napoleon's concern, if that's what his bringing this two-fold and unwanted birthday present meant, urged a difficult and almost painful solution. If he wanted to be left alone, Illya would have to just agree with him. "I take your point. I will try to be more, um, social," Illya almost spat the word, "and not disturb you with my erratic mood swings. Maybe they are caused by frustration, you may be right. Just leave me in peace now. Deal?"
"No deal. That's what you can give me on my birthday, a totally docile and cheerful partner—hail fellow well met. But for your birthday, I planned something special." He moved forward once again and gripped Illya's biceps, shaking him for emphasis. "You said you were lonely. You said it."
Oh yes, he had said it and Illya did not wish to be reminded. He had lowered his guard in a pub not far from U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters, one about which Waverly had issued an irritable memo after three Section Two agents had gotten into a brawl there. The old man deemed it off-limits to all U.N.C.L.E personnel so Napoleon and Illya used it as their private hangout when they needed to get away from their co-workers. No one else would be so bold as to defy Waverly's orders and even if they dared to do so, Napoleon would pull rank and write them up. Waverly's stern memo had provided them with a safe haven.
Not that they socialized all that often in their off hours. They already spent enough time in each other's company, and they unwound in different ways. But they had spent that evening together, at the off-limits bar, celebrating the successful conclusion of a lengthy affair and a lengthy separation. They had worked on unconnected missions on different continents—and then together—their missions converging as if the world's problems could not keep them apart for long.
The bar buzzed with a Thursday after—work crowd, so noisy they did not talk much, could not really hear each other. They just downed one martini after another and listened to music too loud to enjoy, until Illya's attention had turned to a pair of girls dancing together, one of them a plump, graceful blonde.
Eagle-eyed Napoleon, apparently noticing his the direction of his friend's gaze, jostled Illya's arm, leaning close and almost shouting in his ear. "I love to watch girls dance with each other too."
"What?" He looked away from the girls.
"Which one do you like?" Napoleon asked.
"Which one?" Illya tried not to stare but felt his eyes drawn once again to the big blonde. She appeared to be wearing a uniform of a sort, a starched white blouse and a form-fitting black skirt, a size or two too small.
"You had better ask her to dance now. With a backside that she'll be big as a house in a few years."
Illya grinned. At least Napoleon would not provide competition this time. This girl was his alone if he wanted her, but he found Napoleon's dismissal of her dispiriting. "She just reminds me. As if we have a few years with anyone to find out what happens."
"Of?" He shouted right in Illya's ear.
"She reminds you of whom?"
Illya leaned back and pressed his elbows against the bar rail. He downed the remainder of his martini, lost in his memories and not wishing Napoleon to make light of them.
"Ask her to dance," Napoleon said when the jukebox paused between songs. "She'd probably love it if you did. Ask her. Ask them both." He gave Illya an encouraging nudge that almost dislodged him from his perch.
The girls stood on the dance floor, both breathless from their excursions. They pressed their foreheads together and giggled.
"I'll buy the drinks. Ask her to dance," Napoleon said.
"It's my round," Illya replied, but he ordered only for himself and his friend.
Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain...
"A slow song. Now's your chance! Get in there. Do you need a written invitation? Move!"
Illya turned away from the dance floor and paid for the round. He did not leave his money on the bar the way Napoleon did. He had never understood this American custom, though he did tip the bartender.
"Go!" Napoleon exclaimed. The girls now swayed in each other's arms and Napoleon smiled as if he too were lost in fond reminiscences
Illya shook his head. His mood had turned more morose than nostalgic, and he wanted to leave, no longer much interested in this girl, who would just prove another disappointment, who would not be like...
"Ask her to dance," Napoleon repeated.
"No, I'm going." Illya slid the olive from his martini into his mouth and then set the full glass on the bar.
"What?" Napoleon shouted over the din.
"I'm going," Illya shouted back.
"Why? C'mon, Illya. Carpe diem."
"She's just some American."
"What's wrong with Americans?"
"Nothing much. She's just not Katya." Oh, why had he ever mentioned her name?
"Katya?" Napoleon asked.
"Katya," Illya shouted as the music ended. "Katya," he repeated in a more subdued tone. "Someone I miss. Sometimes I miss things. It's lonely here."
What idiocy! Yes, he had said he was lonely. Why must he now suffer Napoleon's absolution, this benediction of whores?
Napoleon now stared at him and tilted his head, the way he had done in the pub, as if both amused and fascinated by Illya's Achilles' heel. "Tell me about Katya." Leaning forward, he peered over Illya's shoulder, and rearranged the errant forelock from his forehead, absorbed in his reflection in the mirror. It fell back almost at once and he grinned at himself. "You never told me who she was."
"Not a whore!" Illya exclaimed. Napoleon took a step back his mouth falling open as if shocked by the vehemence in Illya's response.
"Who was she then? Did I ever tell you the girl at Harry's was named Kathy? She was very nice and sharp as a tack. You would have liked her if you hadn't rushed out like a bat out of hell."
Illya sighed and scrunched his eyes shut. "Did you take her home then?"
"No, Illya." Napoleon held up his index and middle finger. "Scout's honor. I even passed on her friend."
"Would you leave this alone? I've said enough."
"No, Illya." Napoleon thumped his scout's honor fingers against his friend's forehead. "Tell me about Katya."
Illya took a deep breath and decided to take the route of least resistance. It would be easier just to tell him about Katya than to dance around the subject in endless circles. "I was sent to a collective farm for a summer break, you know, sort of like camp in a way—camp in the gulag. We were all put in freight cars, the girls and the boys together. I was in military school and not used to the company of girls. No one seemed to care what we did since it was our holiday. We were unsupervised. It took three days to get to where we were going and Katya took me under her wing, so to speak. I wanted to marry her."
Napoleon's eyebrows shot to the ceiling. "How old were you?"
"I don't know. Sixteen. She was older."
"You wanted to marry her?"
Illya nodded and then smiled. "I wanted to live on a collective farm somewhere with Katya."
"On a farm?"
"Yes." Illya's voice was almost inaudible. "She was at university studying agriculture. I wanted to do whatever I had to do to stay with her. She taught me how to milk a cow."
"Hmm," Napoleon said. "Is that the colloquial in Russian?"
"Oh, forget it." Illya scowled suddenly tired of the subject and turned his head away. He had said enough and didn't wish to be teased.
"Don't withdraw." Napoleon leaned forward and cupped Illya's chin, redirecting his attention so that he had to look at him. "I'm only assuming you didn't only learn how to milk a cow. You lost your virginity to her. Is that why the collective farm seemed so appealing? I can't imagine you on a farm."
"And I didn't end up on one."
"You wouldn't have been happy with Katya. You know that." His dark eyes pleaded for agreement.
"I don't know that." Illya pushed his friend's manipulative hand away. "You say I am frustrated, backed up, however you put it. I'm just tired of meaningless sex. I've outgrown it."
Napoleon tried not to react but the laugh escaped his lips before he could control himself. "Perish the thought—nobody outgrows meaningless sex."
"You asked who Katya was and I have told you." Illya jumped off the sink, at once staring up at his friend and staring him down. "I don't want these girls in my apartment." He took a sidestep toward the door, whacking his shin against the toilet as Napoleon blocked his way. Illya feinted in the opposite direction, growling in annoyance when, once again, Napoleon obstructed his progress. "You want me to throw you?" Illya snarled.
They squared off against each other in the tiny bathroom. "You couldn't throw me if I had one hand tied behind my back," Napoleon said, crouching in a defensive posture all the same.
A loud rap at the door interrupted Napoleon's threat. "What are you doing in there?" Simone asked, in her fake French accent. "Coffee's ready." The door opened inward a degree and the doorknob banged into the small of Napoleon's back. "Are you two starting without us?"
"Just give us a moment," Napoleon called out in a singsong voice, leaning back against the door and banging it shut with his butt.
Illya stood in front of him and took a deep breath, stilling himself. His eyes appraised Napoleon, sizing him up, and he bounced on the balls of his feet, ready to attack.
"Calm down, my friend," Napoleon said. His tone remained singsong, and consoling, as if soothing a wild animal. "I can't bring you Katya," he said in an even kinder tone. "Why don't you just enjoy what you can have? Why make everything so difficult? This existential funk you've been in is really getting dull." He smoothed Illya's eyebrows with his index finger and pulled him into a bear hug.
"I know you mean well," Illya said, leaning into the embrace, his predatory zeal warring with an almost weightless feeling of well-being. "I don't want these girls here," he said, sniffing the wilted boutonnire in Napoleon's lapel and hoping his friend would understand. "Please tell them to go."
Although they had hugged, once or twice, in the past Illya was amazed at how good it felt, how it defused his fury. He started to draw Napoleon closer and shivered before extricating himself from the too-comfortable embrace. Napoleon stared down at him, his dark eyes puzzled as he reached backwards, fumbling to open the door.
The girls had made themselves at home, their fur coats now hanging on the brass coat tree opposite the inconsequential kitchen. Illya ignored the glass of champagne Simone tried to hand him, but could not quite ignore her. His eyes widened and then swept over her. She wasn't wearing much: some sort of white, lacy corset holding up white stockings. Illya looked down at her white go-go boots and swallowed. He raised his head and stared at her jutting breasts, which pointed at him like missiles. Then he turned away only to see Irina draped on the sofa, sipping a cup of coffee, her pinky finger outstretched as she examined the underside of the saucer. "Royal Dolton," she mused. "Very nice."
"Whatever it says; I don't know," Illya said, gulping for air. The Polish girl was wearing a form-fitting, dark business suit with a plunging neckline and now looked more like a dominatrix than an in-tourist guide. She daintily placed her coffee cup back on the saucer and held Illya's eye contact, smiling at him. Spider to fly.
Illya finally took the proffered champagne and swallowed it in one gulp, his face flaming crimson.
"Russian," Irina murmured. "What did I tell you?"
"I know, shocking," Napoleon agreed, accepting the other flute of champagne from Simone. "You look magnificent," he purred, his wide grin encompassing both girls. Illya glared at him and walked to his bedroom, wishing he had a door to slam and lock behind him. His apartment had never felt so small and he had never felt so on display. He pulled a pair of trousers and a shirt from his closet as he unbuttoned his pajama top. Tempting, they looked so tempting, but he would not give Napoleon the satisfaction. His smug friend looked too, well, smug.
Before Illya could retreat to the shelter of his bathroom to change, Napoleon took a few hurried steps to the bedroom and yanked the clothing from Illya's hands. "My friend is a little shy," he explained to the girls.
Simone swayed and started to sing in her high-pitched voice. "He's a soft spoken guy, also seems kinda shy. Makes me wonder why, should I even give him a try? But then again he can't shy, he can't shy away forever. And I'm going to make him mine, if it takes me forever." Simone took a few shimmying steps forward.
Illya shook his head, feeling, not for the first time today, as if he fallen down a rabbit hole to a dream worse than many of his nightmares. His finger paused, poised on the buttons of his pajama jacket. He even pinched himself.
Irina set her cup on the table in front of her, stood, and added a chorus of "Doo Langs."
"He's so fine, oh yeah, gotta be mine, sooner or later, I hope it's not later. Got to get together, oh yeah, the sooner the better. I just can't wait, I just can't wait to be held in his arms." Both the girls sang loudly, in giggling, full voices. "He's so fine wish he were mine, that handsome boy over there . . ."
Illya stared at the girls. "Where did you get them, at an audition?" he asked Napoleon.
The phone rang , interrupting another resounding Doo Lang chorus. Illya backed up and picked it up from the bedside table and brought his index finger to his lips, shushing them "Hello?"
His landlady, Mrs. Ingram, scolded him in an outraged tone. "Turn the stereo down, you crazy boy," she said. "It's not even six a.m. You'll wake the dead with your ghastly music. What's the matter with you?"
"I'm sorry. Yes, I know it's early," Illya said.
"Early? The birds aren't even awake."
"It's my birthday," Illya blurted.
"Oh, happy birthday, my dear," she said, suddenly conciliatory. "How old are you?"
"Goodness gracious. That old? I don't believe it."
"Really. I am." Illya turned away from his audience and cradled the receiver against his shoulder.
"Was it a singing telegram? I saw Mr. Solo bring a couple of girls up. They didn't look like his sisters."
"No, not his sisters. You're quite correct. A singing telegram." Illya grinned, pleased she had provided an alibi. "I didn't realize how loud it was but I'm glad they didn't awaken you," he added. Pointedly. He knew Mrs. Ingram had probably been looking for an excuse to call. She frequently called in the morning when she knew he was at home. Often she woke him up.
"I arise early these days," Mrs. Ingram replied defensively. "Not all my tenants maintain such an early schedule."
Illya glanced over his shoulder. The two girls and Napoleon stared at him and he felt a bit like Bob Newhart performing a phone routine. "They were just on their way out," Illya said. Pointedly.
"Would you like to come down for pancakes?" Mrs. Ingram asked. "Please ask Mr. Solo. I know he enjoys them too. Ask the singing telegram girls as well. I mean, if they don't have other business to attend to."
Illya cupped the receiver. "Mrs. Ingram wants to know if you'd like to come down for pancakes?"
"Us too?" Irina asked. "I'm starving."
Napoleon's mouth dropped open in shock. "You can't be serious," he said, gesturing to encompass the two girls. "The pancakes are wonderful. But Illya!"
"I think Napoleon has other plans," Illya said into the phone. "It's a holy day of obligation."
"I don't know what that means?"
"I don't know what it means either."
Napoleon glanced over at Illya, who hunched over a typewriter, pecking away at the keys and adding a series of numbers by hand on a pad of paper beside him. Periodically, he leafed through a pile of crumpled receipts, drumming his fingers as he transcribed the numbers from his scratchpad. Napoleon corrected a dull report in front of him, written in cursive longhand, and grinned feeling vindicated. He did not look up as he heard his partner mutter at the same time the typewriter dinged.
Last month, Napoleon, tired of Waverly's reprimands and Illya's teasing about the cost of his wardrobe, had instituted a new rule: Whoever spent the most money on an assignment had to fill out the expense report and face the dreary boys from budget control. Illya had readily and rashly agreed to it, as if getting away with murder. This was the third affair since, and the third time Illya had to do the honors. Not only that, but he had to be a good sport about it, since he had lost what he imagined to be a sure bet.
"What's the date today?" Illya asked without looking up.
"The ninth," Napoleon replied offhandedly, drawing a series of question marks in the margin of the increasingly incoherent report he was reading. He looked over his desk at Illya.
"What month?" Illya's fingers were poised on the typewriter keys, waiting for the answer.
"What, did you fall and break your head? You don't know what month it is?"
"Oh, very good, my smart Russian."
Illya typed in the date, a slow smile dawning on his face. "It's your birthday tomorrow," he said, but not as if it just occurred to him.
"Yes," Napoleon replied, pleased Illya had remembered. While not exactly thrilled to be marking another year, he didn't want his birthday forgotten either.
"What are you doing to celebrate?" Illya looked down at the typewriter keys.
"I have a date with, uh," Napoleon closed his eyes and leafed through a little black book on his eyelids "Helen, Helene, no Helena. Helena," he repeated without certainty.
"What? I said Helena."
Napoleon laughed at the steel in Illya's voice, the terse order delivered like an unreasonable commanding officer. "Why should I?" Henry, Herbert? What did that mean?
"Turn the page to the I's. Ian, Ida—Illya. We spent my birthday together and I want to return the favor."
Napoleon snorted and shook his head at the memory, closing the file in front of him to give Illya his undivided attention. "That was the oddest day I've ever spent with you, and one of the most expensive. A very costly breakfast, not to mention absurd. Imagine paying call girls to eat pancakes when we could have engaged in more, ah, satisfying pursuits."
The image of the two pretty girls dressed in their furs and sitting at Mrs. Ingram's kitchen table came to his mind and he leaned forward on his elbows, affixing Illya with a long-suffering stare. The girls had dug into their pancakes, not only pleased but giddy by the unexpected turn of events and had chattered away at the strait-laced old lady, trying to help her with the New York Times' crossword puzzle. Irina, who could not come up with a single clue, had instead been complimentary of Mrs. Ingram's colorful Fiesta wear dishes.
"You want to, uh, return the favor?" Napoleon asked.
Illya nodded. "The girls were my present. I have a present for you." He reached inside his suit jacket and patted a spot close to his gun. "It's here," Illya said, laying his hand against the pocket of his white shirt. It held his communicator but otherwise appeared to be empty.
"It must be a very, um, small present," Napoleon stammered.
"No, not really. It's probably of average size." Illya ducked his head, staring intently at Napoleon, his right hand still splayed against the alleged present.
Napoleon stood and walked over to the typewriter table where his partner sat. "It would have to be small to fit into your shirt pocket. Wouldn't it?" His voice sounded shaky and he cleared his throat. He felt fairly sure of Illya's intent.
"It's not in my pocket."
Napoleon persisted in the reasonable line of questioning, not wanting to get this wrong. "You don't have it yet?"
"Of course I do," Illya protested. He grasped Napoleon by the wrist and brought his hand down, settling it where his own hand had been. Napoleon closed his eyes and reached inside the pocket, feeling only the familiar outline of the communicator and the steady beat of Illya's heart.
"What is it?" Napoleon maintained a small hope there would be something material—and not just a communicator—in Illya's pocket. Finding nothing else, Napoleon withdrew his hand and took a step back.
"Maybe we're not good at choosing gifts for each other." Illya sounded more resigned than disappointed.
Napoleon tilted his head, uncertain of Illya's meaning and sure of it at the same time.
"You brought me a present, two of them, I didn't want," Illya said. " And maybe I've made a mistake as well." Illya's vivid blue eyes met his, not at all unsure.
"I am assuming you are not making a gift of your communicator. I have one of my own. I'll just have to return it."
Illya withdrew his communicator from his pocket and set it next to the typewriter. "My bright American."
"And there's nothing more there." Napoleon swallowed. He examined the receipts piled on the desk, the expenses accumulated from Florida, a blue-stained Popsicle stick on top of them. What did Illya know that made him so rash? Had he caught on to Napoleon's recklessness? "Your heart?" Napoleon finally asked.
"You are catching on."
"Am I?" Napoleon felt as if Illya had pulled a chair out from under him, teetering in mid-air for a moment. He tried to maintain his equilibrium. "Why?" he asked, taking a step forward and crowding his friend, wanting to be sure of his intent.
"Why?" Illya cocked his head as he met Napoleon's gaze. "You don't really wonder why, do you?"
His cautious friend had obviously seen something in Florida. Will? Had Illya seen him with Will? But Illya had been sound asleep when he left. Still, that would explain this impulsive overture "I'm not sure what you mean," Napoleon said, hedging his bets just in case. He wanted Illya to spell it out, connect every dot.
"Hmm." Illya put his communicator back in his shirt pocket and frowned. He reached forward and unrolled the paper from the typewriter, setting it aside in a gray folder. Then he stood, tossing the file toward Napoleon and turned to leave. "Never mind," he said, with an injured sniff. Almost as an afterthought, he reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and withdrew a square, robin's egg blue box tied with a white satin ribbon. He walked over to the desk and set it on top of the file Napoleon had been reading. "Many happy returns," he said, his posture stiff and formal. "I've got work to do. I'm not free today and I probably won't see you tomorrow. I took it off. Stol lot."
Napoleon did not move and felt as if his feet had grown roots. The door to his office whooshed open and Illya hurried through it before he could think of anything to say. "Wait!" he called to his friend's back.
The door slid closed like a curtain coming down on their conversation. Napoleon waited with impatience for it to open again, scowling at the electronic eye. When the door parted, he bellowed down the hallway: "You come back here this instant."
Illya had almost rounded the corner—exit stage left. Two agents, ambling down the corridor, started and grinned. They seemed to be anticipating fireworks, and Napoleon affixed them with a smoldering glare. "Illya, get back in here. Now," he shouted, not really surprised to see his obedient friend spin round and return.
As Illya made his way back, Napoleon turned his attention to the smirking agents and plastered a disarming smile on his face, devoid of humor. He didn't say a word. They did a quick about-face and hurried in the opposite direction. He yanked his friend by the arm back into the office and pulled him to the far corner, shoving him against the three-tiered file cabinets behind his desk and out of reach of the surveillance cameras. Illya lowered his head as if expecting a blow, his arms hanging at his sides. Napoleon almost laughed at the deceptively unassuming stance; Illya's hands were balled in tight fists.
"You think I'm going to slug you?" Napoleon asked, leaning in close.
Illya shrugged, his eyes wide.
"You just surprised me." Napoleon settled his hand against Illya's heart and felt it race. "What were you running from?"
"Running from? That's as much of a pass as I care to make when so little interest is returned." Illya shrugged again.
"You didn't even give it time. It is surprising." He gave a little pat to Illya's chest and then removed his hand.
"Is it so surprising? Is it? What did you mean on my birthday?"
Napoleon rubbed his forehead trying to remember. He meant to do—what? The girls were supposed to make Illya happy. He had never imagined participating. Hadn't he just envisioned—oh my, what exactly had he imagined? Not his participation. Not this Pandora's box. He looked at the square box on his desk that appeared to be from Tiffany's, wondering idly if he could have both presents. "I don't know what I meant on your birthday, only that you spurned my gift. Or gifts." All he knew was that his gifts had not done anything to release Illya from his dreams of Katya.
"I thought perhaps it was so you could sleep with me," Illya said. He sounded more matter-of-fact than hopeful, a note of the scientist coloring his tone. "Why bring two girls?"
"Well, don't knock it if you haven't tried it."
"I'm not knocking it."
"So why did we have to eat pancakes instead?"
Illya shook his head. "I meant I wasn't knocking sleeping with you. I told you, I'm done with meaningless sex."
"Hmm." Napoleon took a deep breath, trying to still the confusion in his mind. "So sex with me wouldn't be meaningless? Is that what you mean?"
Illya grasped Napoleon's hand, pressing it once again against his heart.
"I don't know which is more surprising to me. This overture of, uh, regard or," Napoleon inclined his head toward the desk, "the fact you bought me something at Tiffany's."
The soft chuckle his statement produced sent a frisson of longing down Napoleon's spine. He could feel Illya's breath against his face and his accelerated heartbeat against the palm of his hand.
"You're dying to open it, my greedy American," Illya said. "But wait for your birthday."
"Why are you making me wait for everything?"
"A day?" Illya lifted a sardonic eyebrow.
"And why do you think I would sleep with you? I mean—have you done it before?"
"Me? No. Maybe I'm just not your type, but you do like blonds, no?"
Napoleon flushed. "Blonde girls, yes, I do."
"That surfer fellow you were with didn't look all that girlish to me." Illya lifted his chin, and his eyes stared a challenge. "All that blond hair. He reminded me a bit of someone we know."
Napoleon tried to swallow, but his throat muscles wouldn't cooperate, and he made a choking sound instead. "I don't know what you're talking about." The denial sounded thin.
"No?" Illya sneered. "Don't be insulting. If I don't appeal to you, that's all right. But don't lie about the rest of it." Illya squeezed Napoleon's hand, staring at him.
Though Illya was finally spelling it all out, Napoleon persisted in playing dumb—hard to get? "I think you've misinterpreted a few things." Napoleon knew he had misinterpreted nothing. Not a thing. Hadn't he always worried Illya would find out someday? While he dreaded his sometimes-prudish friend's reaction, he had never imagined this particular response—that Illya would proposition him
"I know what I saw. You were on top of him in a cabana on the beach and kissing him. What exactly was I missing?" Illya snorted as if amused at the ambiguity of his question. "Actually, I wondered what I was missing. I wanted to be kissed like that. By you."
"What? Do you follow me around?" Napoleon asked, trying to put Illya on the defensive but also feeling defensive. Though they stood almost nose-to-nose, he leaned toward Illya.
"Sometimes," Illya replied, unabashed. "Mostly when you are romancing people I worry might harm you. And "people" is the operative words here—they're not always girls, are they? If you want me to go on pretending for you, I will. We can pretend we never had this conversation and that I never kissed you or wanted to."
"But you never kissed me."
Illya reached up, pressing the palms of his hands lightly against Napoleon's cheeks and leaned forward. His mouth touched Napoleon's, undemanding and almost passive, a teasing little kiss.
Napoleon pulled out the center drawer of the file cabinet and scooted Illya's butt against it, lifting him slightly. He pulled his friend's legs wide and settled between them, leaning him back, off-kilter. Illya struggled to maintain his balance and steadied himself by grasping Napoleon's shoulders. Then Napoleon returned the kiss, just as lightly. Illya strained forward opening his mouth. The kiss against the file cabinet intensified and on Napoleon's terms. He kissed him hard and then withdrew, pleased when Illya sought his mouth in baby robin fashion.
"I'm not doing it here, Napoleon." Illya said, gulping for air as he disengaged.
"Don't knock it if you haven't tried it," Napoleon replied.
"You even have this drawer action down to perfection." Illya tried to lever himself off the partially open drawer but could not.
"Yes, I do. It's rather ingenious, you have to admit." He bent his head to kiss Illya once again, demonstrating the cunning of the drawer. Illya's arms wound around him as they kissed and he used his legs to steady himself.
Napoleon kissed him, and then pulled his mouth just out of reach, controlling the unexpected passion between them. So nice to feel Illya acquiesce, his sweetly helpless exertion. Napoleon felt his friend relax into another the kiss, as if unconcerned with the vulnerability of his position. Then he reached forward and launched himself into Napoleon's arms, lurching sideways and bringing them both down in an inelegant heap on the floor. They fell together but Illya landed on his feet like a cat,
"Oww," Napoleon said, rubbing his hip and shoved Illya back toward the file cabinet, out of the way of the surveillance cameras. Protective.
Illya crouched at his side. "I'm sorry. But really, Napoleon, isn't this the first thing we were taught in hand-to-hand combat? If your opponent is bigger you have to bring him down to your level. Get him on the floor."
"I wasn't aware we were fighting."
Illya nodded. "I know. The second lesson: I had the element of surprise in my favor as well."
"You've had the element of surprise in your favor since you started talking to me today." Napoleon pulled himself to a sitting position and leaned against the file cabinet, rubbing his abused hip. "I thought this was what you wanted."
"But I made myself clear. I do want to make love to you, but not here. Not like this. I want it to be special, not sordid."
Illya nodded, staring a promise.
"But why tomorrow?"
"Because it's your birthday. And I don't have today off and, I told you, I have a great deal to do. I have an appointment with budget control for one and they only meet twice a month. I have to explain about the Dodge."
"Just the one?" Napoleon asked, still massaging his hip.
"Okay, the Dodges," Illya allowed. "The dark blue one, the light blue one and the other light blue one." Illya counted them on his fingers.
"Ah, but that second light blue one was only a fender bender. A flesh wound. Don't let them give you a hard time."
"I wasn't supposed to be driving at all. And three cars—I drove them all."
"So we ignored their last request; you weren't supposed to be driving."
"Not exactly. They told me not to drive without a proper license and not on tickets either." Illya withdrew his wallet from the breast pocket of his jacket. Said pocket seemed bottomless, like Mary Poppins' carpetbag. What more did it contain? "I'm ready for them."
Napoleon squinted to read the name on the driver's license Illya produced from his wallet: Illya Young. Utah. "Where did you get that?" he asked, laughing at the Provo address and the arch ludicrousness of the name.
"He had a lot of children," Illya said.
"Perhaps one too many." Napoleon felt both guilty and gleeful about the wager they had made. The untoward expense of his wardrobe, while not nearly as costly as the cars, had never proved intrinsic to their missions. "You made a sucker's bet, Illya. I'll go to budget control for you," Napoleon offered. "I'll say I was driving."
"No, it's okay. I accepted the terms of our wager and I will live with the consequences," Illya said, shoving the wallet with its forged driver's license back in his pocket.
"Hmm." Napoleon scowled and pursed his lips. "Terms. Consequences."
"Never mind that," Illya interrupted, sidling closer to his friend. "It's not what you want. I'm not."
"I didn't say that. Don't put words in my mouth."
"I wouldn't dream of putting anything in your mouth."
Napoleon smiled and shook his head in exasperation. "Don't go all cynical on me. Please. Couldn't you maintain this unexpected sweetness for just a few minutes more?"
"Do we have to sit on the floor?" Napoleon asked.
Illya stood and Napoleon used his friend's proffered forearm to pull himself to his feet. He leaned against the file cabinet and slammed the center drawer shut. Clever as the set-up was, he had never employed it before, though it seemed to work well enough. Despite his reputation, he preferred his trysts to be comfortable and far away from Headquarters. But Illya had caught him. He was faced with choice of either letting his friend down as gently as possible or engaging in a liaison uncomfortably close to Headquarters. "How long have you known about me?" Napoleon asked.
"Not long and I know just enough." Illya lowered his eyes. "It was too dark."
"And it didn't bother you?"
"Obviously not. Only your recklessness bothers me." Illya reached forward and smoothed the errant lock of hair from Napoleon's brow. He took a deep breath. "You left me. We had such a good time trying to fillet all those yellowtails we caught. I think I'm still choking on the bones you left in them. I liked Florida. America is so diverse. Americans too."
"Yes, even Americans," Napoleon agreed, recognizing Illya meant only him. He shrugged a vague apology, hearing the unexpressed feeling of rejection in his friend's matter-of-fact tone. Though he could not turn back time, he realized he should not have left Illya that night.
Sometimes—not often—their assignments felt more like vacations than work. In Florida, they had shared a ground-level efficiency in a second-rate hotel in Pompano Beach, an unattractive little dive but close to the shore of the ocean. The four days they spent there, Illya got up each morning before sunrise to swim. Napoleon awoke a bit later and made coffee, bringing it to the shore where Illya swam, agile and joyful as a dolphin. When he grew tired of swimming, Illya accepted the mug of black coffee, shivering beneath the threadbare towel Napoleon draped over his shoulders, the temperature balmy for late December.
"The sea is so warm," Illya had said the first morning as he splashed to shore. "It's so lovely here."
Napoleon, never fond of swimming as a leisure activity, laughed, delighted with the buoyancy of Illya's mood. Illya seemed to be emerging not only from the ocean but also from his tiresome and long-standing funk.
The early morning swim, followed by coffee, took on a ritual as if part and parcel of an everyday pattern. As they drank their coffee on the beach and watched the sunrise, Napoleon almost expected Illya to start building a sand castle. Instead, he had followed fiddler crabs, entranced with their sidling movements. Illya had seemed transfixed by the warmth of the gentle December. No fistfights, no torture, no capture—a couple of car chases was all that distinguished this affair from a holiday. The most arduous part of the mission involved a fake coconut containing Thrush codes lodged in a tall palm tree. Neither man, northern-raised, could figure out how to climb the limbless tree and they had laughed at their predicament. They had ended up paying a young local boy, who couldn't have been more than nine, to retrieve it. They gave the boy a Kennedy half-dollar and bought him a blueberry Popsicle in exchange for shimmying up the palm tree. Illya had dutifully noted the expenditure on the back of the Popsicle stick. He had also learned how to climb the palm tree himself and tore both arms of his shirt at the elbows in the process.
Napoleon stared at this same Popsicle stick atop the pile of receipts and wondered if Illya's expense report included the ruined shirt or their drift fishing expedition on the Captain Kidd where they had caught the yellowtails. They had taken their bounty back to the dismal kitchenette and spent almost an hour trying to figure out how to clean them. Eventually they broiled the fish on a forgotten, spider-webby hibachi grill left on the cement patio. The sun set behind the hotel as they ate in companionable silence. Illya had gone swimming one more time when the phone rang.
In retrospect, Napoleon realized he should not have risked going out that night. Of course Illya would have looked for him. Not that he made a habit of such trysts, but he could not refuse the overture from another friend. Illya had enjoyed swimming; Napoleon required recreation of another kind. Will, a former Army buddy and now a political science professor at Florida State, had proved as irresistible to Napoleon as the ocean had been to Illya.
Napoleon brushed Illya's bangs aside, mimicking his friend's gesture of a moment ago. "So you followed me, my inquisitive friend?" he asked. "Or did one of your fiddler crabs lead you astray?"
"How do you always win, Napoleon?"
"What?" Napoleon didn't know what he meant; the question sounded like a non sequitur. "If you mean our wager about expenses, you should have thought it out. My suits are not as expensive as the cars. But my suits are an indulgence and not equivalent. We need the cars. I really will go to budget for you this time and call off the bet."
"No." Illya shook his head. "I don't mean that. I mean the coin tosses for the beds. Heads or tails. How do you always win? The studio couch was most uncomfortable. That's why I couldn't sleep. Your bed was far more comfortable and if you weren't going to use it—why shouldn't I?"
Napoleon grinned. His admiral grandfather had shown him the trick of fixing a coin toss long ago. It came in handy; the laws of chance no longer applied to him. As his granddad had said: "We Solos are lucky. Let me show you how we turn our luck."
He recalled finding Illya ensconced in his bed after he had returned from his ill-advised rendezvous. Sated by the illicit liaison in the double cabana, he hadn't given enough thought to why Illya had switched beds or the reason for the sandy footprints on the linoleum floor. Illya's feet had been encrusted with sand, too—elementary—but Napoleon had given these clues no thought.
"You should have told me what you saw that night instead of feigning sleep," Napoleon said. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Because a friend keeps his friend's secrets. Even when keeping them from his friend."
"What?" Napoleon waved a dismissive hand at Illya's statement that sounded like a Chinese riddle. "Have you always known?"
"No," Illya said, walking to the typewriter and tracing the Popsicle stick with his index finger. "You said I made a sucker's bet. Watching you with another man felt like a sucker punch. I felt like a jilted lover."
Napoleon shook his head trying to clear it, the direction of Illya's conversation so unexpected it made his guts turn to water. It felt like another sucker punch. His liaisons had never been important, always fleeting. Illya had pointed to his heart, but that particular organ had never been involved in his romances. "Your friendship is important to me."
"Meaning what?" Illya's eyes sought a speck of dust on the floor of the office. "Meaning you would not wish to add an emotional context to your affairs?"
Napoleon did not know how to respond. It had been a long time since sex held any significance for him and he wasn't sure he craved a deeper connection, especially with his closest friend. If he had ever considered seducing Illya, he had put the thought firmly in the off-limits portion of his brain, a part of his mind that had collected a jumble of baggage over the years. Not that the idea held no appeal, but the repercussions of a failed courtship, not to mention a failed relationship, overwhelmed any desire he might have harbored. If it ended badly, as affairs often did, he would lose more than he was prepared to risk.
"I think your proposition is reckless," Napoleon finally said, reaching inside Illya's jacket to tap his heart in dismissal "You think me the reckless one but I know what I'm getting into with my, uh, affairs. I don't think you know what you're doing at all."
Illya started to say something and swallowed.
"Hey, we're even, my friend. You said it just a little while ago—maybe we're just not good at choosing presents for each other." He took the sting out of his words, or tried to, by moving closer and pressing his hand once again to Illya's heart. It no longer raced. "Your offer is too large a gift, too much. And it seems forced, to be honest. This is really more about me than you."
Illya pushed Napoleon's hand away, tossing it back at him. "Don't practice your breakup lines on me," he hissed. "Soon you'll be telling me I'm too good for you." Then in a more plaintive tone: "Why can't I have what you gave some beach bum you just met?"
"He is a professor at Florida State and I didn't just meet him—I wasn't trolling the shore. Give me some credit, please. And you're just jealous."
"Of course I'm jealous. Why shouldn't I be?" Illya stood on his toes for a moment, anger flashing in his eyes. "I tried to give you an out before and you called me back. Now, we've had our little chat and I'm going. Don't shout down the hallway after me. Try to maintain your reputation for detachment."
Illya gathered the receipts into the file. The Popsicle stick fell to the floor and Napoleon crouched to retrieve it. They almost banged heads as Illya grabbed it from his hands.
"No hard feelings though?" Napoleon called to Illya's rigid back just before the door whooshed open again. "May I still have the Tiffany present?"
Illya stood at the entranceway to the office between the sliding doors and turned to face Napoleon. "I don't hold grudges, you should know that about me," he said, his smile impish, his eyes bleak. "Of course. But open it tomorrow. I'm off tomorrow."
Napoleon waited until the automatic doors closed behind Illya and walked to his desk, untying the white satin ribbon around the Tiffany's box. Oh, they'd get over this; he started composing a thank-you note in his head: "The cufflinks are beautiful, just perfect. How did you know?" He picked up the square wedge of cotton in the box, peered inside and sighed. Not cufflinks but a sheet of lined notebook paper folded many times over like origami. He considered putting the lid back on the box, retying the bow and just returning it to Illya unopened. Instead, he unfolded the paper, too curious. Something fell to the floor making a jangling sound and Napoleon sighed again as he read the typewritten note.
Napoleon—Happy birthday. the key is to my apartment—I know you already have one but this is my gift, my promise—and I shouldn't be asking again—but I am asking again—and I am going to continue to ask—and that you have to open this means I'll have to continue—to ask—or did you say yes? I.N.K.
The first thought that entered Napoleon's mind was: what the hell's with the punctuation?—this is even more poorly composed than most of Illya's reports. The second: shouldn't a love letter be handwritten? He stooped to retrieve what he assumed was the key and smiled at the sterling silver key ring affixed to it. At least Illya had gotten something at Tiffany's, and it was pretty in its simplicity: horseshoe shaped with small gold knots securing the key to the ring.
So his single-minded friend wasn't going to let this go. Napoleon wondered why had he been so eager to dismiss his friend's proposition in the first place: did it seem too binding? There was something adolescent about Illya's declaration, too cajoling and desperate in its directness. They were no longer children and shouldn't they put aside childish things.
Napoleon did not knock on Illya's door but just turned the key affixed to his new key ring and unlocked the deadbolt. Illya barely raised his head and he did not even look up as Napoleon entered his living room. Rather, he closed the thick book he was reading and set the gun he had been holding inside of it, marking his place. Napoleon raised his eyebrows pleased he had not been shot between them.
"Hello, Napoleon," Illya said, no note of surprise in his voice but no annoyance either. As if Napoleon arrived at his apartment about this time every night.
"Hello, Illya," Napoleon replied, in a singsong tone. "I hope you don't mind that I'm early. I don't know if you know this, but I was born just after midnight, so it will be my birthday in just over an hour."
Illya said nothing, his face as unreadable to Napoleon as the Cyrillic title of his book
"May I sit down?"
"Let me take your coat," Illya said, rising from the couch, the politeness now stilted, as if they had just met. His mouth twitched slightly as he slid the coat off Napoleon's shoulders but he said nothing about the tuxedo as he hung the coat on the wobbling brass coat rack near the door. "Would you like a drink?"
"Scotch would be nice if you have it."
"I believe I do." Illya took a few short steps to his galley kitchen and stood on his tiptoes to retrieve a glass from the open shelving above his sink. A bottle of Chivas was already out on the counter alongside bottles of Gordon's gin, dry vermouth and an almost finished bottle of red wine. Illya pulled a metal ice tray from the little freezer inside his little refrigerator and banged it on the counter. A few of the ice cubes fell to the floor and Illya picked them up and rinsed them off before dropping them in the glass. Then he seemed to reconsider and flicked them into the sink, starting over again. He poured a generous measure of scotch into the glass and brought it to Napoleon.
"What about you?" Napoleon asked.
Illya inclined his head toward a wineglass on the coffee table, his lips and the creases of his mouth already stained red from the wine in it, making him look as if he were smiling.
"You shouldn't drink alone," Napoleon admonished.
"I do though." He hovered above Napoleon for a moment, his eyes raking him over and warming ever so slightly. "Am I underdressed?"
Napoleon took a sip of the scotch and returned the appraising look. Illya wore a white cotton shirt, the one he was wearing earlier, but with no jacket or tie. The first three buttons at his throat were undone and while the front of it was still tucked in, the back hung loose. His empty shoulder holster was curled on the coffee table, next to the almost full glass of wine. Napoleon eyes swept lower, taking him in, his attention languid. They fastened on Illya's bare feet. "Underdressed?" he asked. "Depends on what you want to do."
The flush on Illya's face let him know his remark had hit the mark.
Napoleon took another sip of his drink and held the tumbler up to the lamp. "Waterford?" A little green and gold sticker still clung to it as if it had never been used.
Illya nodded, still hovering, his arms folded.
"Very nice. You have good taste."
"It was a gift," Illya said, his chin lifting slightly.
"Ah, lots of gifts in this house, my mysterious friend. Who gives them to you?"
"It was a gift," Illya repeated, sounding defensive.
Napoleon patted the cushion next to him on the couch as he sat down, urging his friend to join him. "I have something for you." He reached into the side pocket of his dinner jacket and withdrew a note card. "Open it."
Illya swallowed once and sat beside him, sliding his finger under the sealed flap of the envelope. He squinted at Napoleon's even but almost illegible handwriting and reached forward for his glasses, also on the coffee table.
Dear Illya, The key ring is lovely, adored the nautical knots. So appropriate! How did you know? And the key! Perfect. I can't wait to use it. I do wonder what it will unlock. Maybe you should give it some thought as well. My best, Napoleon
The familiar frown line bisected Illya's forehead as he studied the note, reviewing it more than a few times. He removed the glasses shading his troubled blue eyes and tossed them and the note on the coffee table, bringing the glass of wine to his lips. "My best?'" he said.
"Can you ask anything more of a person? Should you?"
They sat about a foot from each other, sipping their drinks, the formality settling in once again as oppressive as a fog. "It sounds so cold. Your best."
"Maybe it is. I do want you to think about this."
"I have! I've given it a lot of thought."
Napoleon held his hands wide, the drink in one of them. Illya settled next to him and rested his head against Napoleon's shoulder, his wine glass close to his heart. A few drops spilled from it staining the front of his shirt. They looked like drops of blood and reminded Napoleon of a blood oath. Disquieting. Unsure of what to say, Napoleon threaded his fingers through Illya's soft blond hair. "We are friends and your friendship means the world to me." The words sounded hollow but were the best he could do for now.
"So you keep saying. Why are you here? I didn't expect you to come."
"Because you asked. And asked again. And promised to keep asking. I am human. But am I what you want?"
Illya's head nodded into Napoleon's shoulder. "Why a tuxedo?"
"I'm doing my best." Napoleon angled Illya's head back and stared into his friend's eyes. "And what do you want to do? How much have you observed?"
"I know your technique up to a point. I don't know what you do or what you expect. But in for a penny, in for..."
"Ah, so you turned away from the cabana. Your curiosity didn't get the best of you?"
"Not exactly." Illya's head bent against the back of the sofa, baring his neck in an unconscious attitude of offering that made Napoleon uneasy. "Really, I'll do whatever you want."
"You'll do whatever? Why? Why now?" Napoleon framed Illya's face with his hands and kissed his friend, his dearest friend. It was not quite a fantasy, not something he had imagined. He sucked Illya's full lower lip and it felt good, tasted of wine, the vintage disturbingly incestuous. "Why now?" he murmured.
Illya leaned into the kiss tentatively, his mouth almost frozen until Napoleon withdrew, unsure of the signals. Sighing, Illya shook his head. "What did you call it on my birthday? You said I was backed up. And I was and I am. Birthdays make one consider. I have no options. We can't engage in serious pursuits until we retire from active duty. And so—"
"I'm the substitute until you are free to pursue what you really want."
"Not at all." Illya's eyes widened as if he had been slapped. "You are who I want."
"And do you know how uncomfortable that makes me? I'd much rather be the substitute for your frustrations than your heart."
"Don't think about it, Napoleon. Please, just touch me." Illya tried to bring Napoleon's hand between his legs.
Napoleon's cock hardened with the purring tone but he shook his head, pulling his hand back from Illya's grip. He set his scotch on the table beside the couch and turned the reading lamp low, plunging the room into dimness.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Napoleon asked and longed to shed the formality of his tuxedo. He settled his hands on his own lap, his palms face up and itching to explore the gift Illya offered. His reluctance surprised him, why should he reject Illya's offer? He was so seldom careful with overtures of any kind and knew he had dressed to kill, to turn Illya's head. But he always listened to his instincts. For a wonder, they were cautioning him to reconsider.
"You look very good," Illya said, and seemed to not only sense Napoleon's misgivings but read his mind. "But why are you so dressed up?"
"Because I look very good. Didn't you say once I looked dashing?"
"Yes." Illya sounded noncommittal.
"I thought you would be angry I arrived early." Napoleon had taken his time dressing, trying to argue himself out of going to Illya's apartment even as made preparations to do just that. He has arrived earlier than he had planned because he found he did not really want to wait, or rather, if he waited any longer he would have lost his nerve. "Is there any particular reason you were so insistent about waiting for tomorrow?"
Illya brought his wine glass to his lips and took a small sip. He looked quizzically at Napoleon and then dropped his eyes, shaking his head in frustration. "I wanted to make you dinner," he said. "Ukrainian borscht with haricots verts.I wanted it to be special."
"All for the best," Napoleon said, smiling. "I don't like beets."
"I don't think you really like me too much either."
Napoleon scowled at the juvenile tone, at the undercurrent of manipulation in it, and did his best to ignore the implications. "I don't really understand this, Illya. I really don't want to hurt you."
"Will it hurt?"
"I don't mean the sex. No, that won't hurt; I'd make sure of that." He stared at his hands and now understood their reluctance, his reluctance. "What I mean is, I don't want to hurt your heart. You presented it today as your gift and it worries me."
"But it's not fragile," Illya protested and stood, clasping his heart for emphasis like a scenery-chewing actor. He took another sip of wine and then set the glass behind him on the coffee table, stumbling slightly. "I thought you would want me. You never refuse anyone else. I thought you would leap at the chance. It's rather embarrassing."
"Oh good lord, Illya." Napoleon grasped his friend by his wrist and pulled him back on the couch, almost in his lap. "You are absolutely beautiful. I'm not rejecting you. Hell, I'm here. Why do you think I'm here? I found I couldn't stay away. I'm just not sure this is such a good idea." Napoleon placed his hand on Illya's chest, his fingers tracing the red stains at his friend's heart. "I'm here. But I can't exactly offer unfailing faithfulness even until you turn forty."
"You think that is what I'm asking of you?" Illya shook his head hard and started to laugh. "You? Do you think I don't know at least that about you?"
"Yes, in a way I think you do not." Napoleon stared into his friend's eyes, the room too gloomy to make out the expression in them. "Explain to me what you have in mind."
Illya grasped Napoleon's hands, squeezing them in his own. "I only want what you gave to that beach bum professor. I want you to kiss me like that. It opened up a world of possibilities. I'm not asking you to become something you aren't, just to be something you already are. But to me."
A world of possibilities? Napoleon rolled the phrase around in his mind as if juggling hand grenades, wondering what these possibilities might entail. While he could believe Illya would not expect faithfulness from him, he did not believe Illya expected nothing at all, or would not come to expect it in time. There were strings attached to this present, ties that most certainly would bind. He yanked his hands away from Illya's, reaching to turn the lamp to its brightest setting. Sure enough, Illya's blue eyes stared at him with a disconcerting expression of yearning. Of adoration really, and not at all an expression that put Napoleon's mind at ease. Illya stared at him like a starving man contemplating a banquet. Not that he could deny wanting to be this banquet, but the hunger artist before him made him question both his motives and Illya's.
"How long has it been?" Napoleon asked, taking a long draw of scotch.
"Since you've had any."
"Don't be obtuse. Since you got laid." When Illya still looked perplexed Napoleon decided to spell it out. "Since you had sex, made love. Am I getting through or do we need a phrasebook?"
Illya shrugged and still looked as if he didn't understand. He leaned forward to retrieve his glass of wine.
"Tavia?" Napoleon guessed. That assignment had been some months ago, but it was the last time he recalled Illya seeming interested in anyone.
"No, who. Tavia?"
"Yeah. That pretty Hungarian girl."
"Oh. No, not her. All she wanted to do was dance."
Napoleon laughed, the cubes of ice in his glass tinkling merrily "If it's been that long, my guess is you're just horny. Do you know what that means?"
Illya made a face and nodded. "I do. Haven't I confessed as much? But I want you, not just any port in the storm." His voice dropped a register and Napoleon shivered in response. While he had never imagined seducing his aloof friend he had also never imagined being the object of Illya's seduction. A rational corner of his mind admired the technique as he watched the blue eyes lower, again sweeping over him like a caress. "I've dreamed about you," Illya whispered. "Ever since—" Illya tried to take a sip of wine and discovered his glass empty. He glared cross-eyed at it and suddenly looked annoyed, as if forgetting any semblance of seduction. Rising, he headed toward the kitchen and poured the last of the bottle of wine into his glass.
He didn't return to the couch. With his back toward Napoleon, he started to do the dishes, not that there were many. Breakfast dishes perhaps—a bowl, a spoon, a plate, a few glasses—it just took a moment for him to wash them. Then Illya wiped down the counter with a sponge, moving the bottles of liquor to the top of the refrigerator one at a time. He tossed the empty bottle of wine in the garbage pail under the sink. It was something they had been taught to do, a Survival School exercise in tidiness. Everything in its place and mark where it all belongs just in case anything should be disturbed.
Disturbed? Napoleon certainly felt disturbed as he watched Illya set the glasses and the plate and bowl on the shelves above the sink, the spoon in a drawer, swiping them dry with a dishtowel. A place for everything and everything in its place. Before retiring. To bed? Was this also part of Illya's seduction technique? Frowning, Napoleon stood and intercepted his friend, embracing him from behind. He had a few seduction techniques of his own, well honed from years of practice. And he had a few scruples.
"You are absolutely smashed, aren't you?"
Illya stiffened and did not lean back.
"I often have wine with dinner," he said, his back arching as he struggled to extricate himself.
"And what did you have for dinner with this bottle of wine?" Napoleon pulled his friend closer.
"Um, I don't remember." He relaxed and leaned against Napoleon, accepting, if not welcoming, the backward hold.
"You don't remember or you didn't eat anything?"
"All right. I didn't eat anything. The wine was for you. It's a nice Bordeaux and I have more." Illya inclined his head toward the top of the refrigerator where two bottles of wine lay on their sides, braced now by the assorted bottles of liquor. "I was going to make dinner for you. Except you don't like beets and you don't want—"
The phone rang and Napoleon started at the sound, sitting up ramrod straight and squinting at the radio alarm clock on the nightstand. A harsh beam of winter sun, as searing as a spotlight, poured in from a rent in the heavy curtains illuminating it. Almost eight. Napoleon curled away from the second ring, drawing the duvet-covered down quilt to his chin and burrowing into the warmth of the featherbed beneath him. Illya's apartment held so many unexpected gifts, the cozy, old-fashioned bed just another.
The phone rang a third time before Illya even stirred, groaning with displeasure. He made a gasping sound as he reached over Napoleon to answer it, as if startled to find someone in bed with him.
"Hello?" Illya pulled the receiver to his ear, yanking the phone off the nightstand where it clattered to the floor making an angry, fist on piano keys sound. "I'm sorry," he said, both to whoever was on the other end and to Napoleon. The curlicue handset cord pulled taut against Napoleon's windpipe. Illya leaned over his friend and retrieved the errant phone, setting it on the nightstand again. They switched positions on the bed with a graceful, rolling ease as if they frequently slept together.
"No, you did not. I had to get up to answer the phone." Illya grinned. "Yes, he's here. It's his birthday." A pause. "Yes, I will tell him." Pause. "Not sure."
Napoleon scowled at Illya, his expression beyond bewildered. Who the hell was he talking to?
"But he's not awake. Maybe in a couple of hours." A pause. "Yes, that will be nice. I'll ask him when he awakens." A longer pause. "Of course. I have a few light bulbs here. I'll take care of it. Thank you. Goodbye." Illya placed the phone's handset into the cradle. Settling himself against the brass headboard, Illya rubbed a shiny spot on his black trousers just above the knee. Then he glanced over to Napoleon, his head tilting as he pulled the quilt off of his friend's underwear-clad body. Napoleon tugged it back, feeling underdressed and wishing he still wore his tuxedo, which was now draped on the back of the chair next to Illya's bed.
"Who was that?" Napoleon asked. .
"My landlady," Illya replied. "She would like to make us breakfast."
Napoleon rolled his eyes. "And she knows I'm here?"
Illya nodded. "She should have been a spy."
"Or maybe she is one."
"No. She's just nosy." Illya glanced at Napoleon again, ducking his head.
"How often do you have pancakes with her?" Napoleon asked, ignoring the puzzled look.
"Often. When I am home, which is not all that usual, as you know. But when I am home, maybe every time I am home."
"That really is very nice of you. To keep her company. She is probably lonely."
"We both are."
The simplicity of the declaration disarmed Napoleon. Illya was seldom sweet and did not look so now. He looked confused, an unsteady hand bringing order to his hair.
"If you're wondering," Napoleon began in response to the anxious look, "we just slept together. As in—" Napoleon clasped his hands as if in prayer and leaned his cheek against them, demonstrating innocent sleep.
"I know," Illya said.
To anyone else he would have sounded dismissive and sure.
"You are fully dressed," Napoleon pointed out.
Illya stood and quickly shed his clothes, standing naked, his hands on his hips.
"And still so insistent."
Uncertainty flashed in Illya's eyes and then they shone with disappointment.
Napoleon could not quite take his eyes off his naked friend. "We merely slept together. We've done so before; we will do so again."
"I know. But it's your birthday today."
"Wish me a happy one. I love the key ring. You are dear and beautiful." Napoleon's eyes raked Illya's presence, the present before him, his eyes dancing up and down his friend's slight form. Hadn't he come for this? Still. "I could almost not resist you last night." Napoleon shrugged almost comically. "But I don't ravish virgins, even eager ones. Never drunk ones."
"How noble," Illya replied. "You know where I live. I could go out in my worldly village and come back fully experienced in, say, twenty minutes." Illya looked at his watch. "Is that what you require?"
"No. It is not what I require." Napoleon grabbed Illya's wrist and pulled him back in the bed and under the warm quilt. They kissed and Napoleon drew the amenable body under his, pressing his weight against Illya, purposely threatening. But Illya just spread his legs and wrapped them around Napoleon's waist, drawing him close. It was as if they had done this many times before. It felt at once foreign to Napoleon and so familiar.
Napoleon's tongue plundered the open mouth, angling Illya's body so that his friend would feel the vulnerability of his position. But Illya did not seem to care.
"Are you trying to scare me away?" Illya whispered. "You won't. You can't. I want what you throw away."
"Throw away? What the hell does that mean?"
"That it could be more. Why don't you see if it could? With me. Am I the only person on earth who can't have you?" Illya's hands reached beneath Napoleon's undershirt, pulling him close.
Napoleon shook his head, goaded and insulted. So, Illya thought he just slept with anyone and damn the consequences. Not even close...well. "All right." Napoleon pulled his head back and stared into Illya's eyes. "Do you have a lubricant?"
"If you are so insistent on getting some of what I throw away there are certain, uh, preparations required."
Illya blinked and then nodded, his eyes expressing only a trace of apprehension. "All right," he said, nodding again not quite vigorously but with understanding. "Let me up. I can—yes. Vaseline would work? Baby oil? Butter?"
To anyone else he would have sounded dismissive and sure.
"Vaseline's fine." Napoleon moved sideways and watched as his friend retreated to the bathroom, where he spent an inordinate amount of time. Napoleon heard the water of the shower running and finally the flush of the toilet. When Illya did return to the bedroom, jar of Vaseline in hand, he approached Napoleon slowly, as if walking a gangplank. Kneeling on the bed, Illya held out the jar in his hand, his face averted.
"No, you put it on me. Make me ready. And then use a lot of it on yourself. You'll need it."
"All right." Illya did not hesitate, pulling Napoleon's briefs to his ankles and then unscrewing the lid of the jar of Vaseline. He brought a dollop of it to Napoleon's cock, his face determined as he anointed it. Napoleon squirmed away, damning his eager penis, which pulsated with pleasure at the steadfast touch. "You don't frighten me, Napoleon," Illya said, arching as he slid a slicked finger into himself and leaned forward.
The kiss he bestowed tasted of toothpaste and felt so uncomplicated. Not a fantasy, not dreamlike, just comfortable. Easy, but there was something, too, exciting about how familiar it felt. Napoleon reached between their bodies to take Illya's cock in hand. It pulsed, hard with early morning eagerness. He heard the quick intake of Illya's breath as he stroked him and Napoleon opened his mouth to the demanding tongue. He heard his name whispered almost in reverence. "Napoleon." And then another name—" 'Polya"—followed by a long litany of what sounded like Russian endearments or encouragements perhaps.
Illya's body felt light on top of his and trembled as they kissed, the hushed stream of whispered Russian filling the breathless gaps between kisses. Engrossed by the kisses and the muted, incomprehensible sentiments, Napoleon lifted his hips, undulating forward, raised by the hand that had slid underneath him. Illya's mouth moved to one side, his teeth grazing Napoleon's earlobe as the breathless litany continued. Napoleon had thought Illya incapable of such soft emotion, that his friend's life of deprivation, grief and isolation had left him empty of such sweetness. The cadence did not change and it took a few repetitions before Napoleon realized Illya had shifted back to English. His brain, groggy with pleasure, felt as if thick clouds were parting and he almost did not want to understand. The English sounded as exotic as the Russian.
"Illya, what?" It was all he could think to say.
"I don't know what to do. Do you want me on my knees? I don't know what to do."
Napoleon's hand clasped Illya's erect cock, stroking it as he stared into the questioning blue eyes. "No, Illya. I don't expect you to—"
"I'll give you what you want," Illya said
"But it's not what I want." Napoleon smiled, amazed he didn't want more, that this felt good enough. "I guess I was just testing your resolve."
"Oh?" Illya shuddered as Napoleon's hand moved faster. "Keep that up and my resolve will—Oh!"
They exchanged positions, Napoleon now on top of his friend, moving purposely. He aligned his cock against Illya's, his actions quick. "Move against me," Napoleon said, again taking Illya's mouth in a deep kiss, his tongue exploring, his hands entangling in the thick hair, holding the other man's head still.
Illya gasped and wound his legs around Napoleon's waist once again, pulling him close as his body arched to meet the steady thrusts. He grasped the feather bed, clenching and relaxing his fingers, then pushed himself forward. "You can do what you want," Illya said, panting for breath.
"And I am," Napoleon assured him. "I want to watch you come."
Illya nodded but the instruction proved unnecessary. His face twisted with enjoyment, his eyes opening wide and unseeing, as his mouth drew Napoleon's tongue into his, sucking it rhythmically. Illya paused in an upward thrust as another flow of Russian poured forth, garbled by the tongue he sucked and infused with obvious pleasure. Napoleon shoved himself heavily against Illya feeling the hot evidence of his friend's release bathe his cock and stomach. Illya's hands moved to cup Napoleon's ass, pulling him tightly against him. "That's it, Illya," Napoleon said.
The climax lasted a long time and Napoleon knew it had been ages since his friend had come. He delighted in watching Illya lose control and held himself on the brink. "That's it," he crooned. "Come for me." He found himself teetering over the edge and though he tried to hold himself in check he found he could not. His cock felt as if it exploded, the orgasm taking him by surprise, blinding in its intensity. Usually he could time his response. He could wait until he saw and took satisfaction in his bedmate's response. His bedmate? His partner. His partner? Maybe Illya was right to insist on their going to bed.
They clung to each other, panting for breath.
"Come for me, Napoleon," Illya whispered, well after the fact, a note of amusement in his tone
"That was incredible," Napoleon said when he finally found his voice. Only a hand job and still—just wonderful—different. "Maybe next time we could go a little slower, savor it. Not rush so much."
Illya nodded "So I passed the audition? There will be a next time?"
The hint of sarcasm was disillusioning and dampened the heat of the connection between them, as if Illya had proved a point or won a bet, his sweetness and yearning quite forgotten. Napoleon chose to ignore the all too familiar attitude. He reached forward to stroke the blond hair, already sensing Illya's enjoyment in this particular touch. "That was wonderful, incredible," he repeated. His other hand returned to Illya's cock, coaxing it, encouraged when it started to respond.
"So I get another chance?"
"Yes. Right now if you want." Napoleon smiled feeling Illya's penis curling against the palm of his hand.
"I'll do what you want."
"You already did. It's too soon for anything else. There will be other times for that."
"No, other times."
"But I'm ready now. I can give you—"
"Shhh. I only meant to see if you were serious."
"When have you known me not to be serious?" Illya asked, but his smile belied the grave tone of his pronouncement. Then the smile broadened. "This resolve you question includes my doing what you want."
"I got what I want." Napoleon said, tapping Illya's nose. Did Illya not only expect more but also want it? "What was all that Russian, by the way? It sounded mysterious, but what were you saying? I felt left behind. Were you reciting poetry? Were you telling me how beautiful I am?"
Illya snorted, shaking his head. "As if you need to hear that."
"Maybe you were just talking dirty to me. Were you?"
The snort transmuted into a laugh and Illya buried his face into Napoleon's neck. "I don't think I know how to talk dirty in Russian, nor can I do so in English."
"Then what were you saying? It's disconcerting not to know." Napoleon's hand continued to stroke Illya's hard cock and the connection felt wonderful. For Illya it might just have been a long time since he had had sex. Hunger makes the best sauce. Napoleon remembered the saying and it seemed to fit here. Really the meal had been quite pedestrian. Still, Napoleon felt as if he had been starving as well.
Always, of late, there was no afterglow and he just wanted to get the hell away after sex, using any tired excuse. He had always enjoyed the chase but the aftermath, going through the motions, often felt dull with disillusionment. So enjoyable, peaceful even, to be able to continue to tease; he knew his partner this time. Illya didn't often laugh or even smile. To elicit these responses felt good. "I like to imagine you were talking dirty to me. 'Fuck me, Napoleon, squeeze it harder, faster. I want you inside of me. Oh, 'Polya. More, please, I need it.'" Napoleon grinned into the startled blue eyes. "I did like the 'Polya. Where did that come from?"
"I made it up."
Napoleon caught the defensiveness in Illya's tone, a sudden chill between them. Though they were both hard and continued to play with each other, Illya shifted fractionally, no longer quite so comfortable with the closeness. Napoleon brought his other hand to Illya's face, and traced his friend's eyebrows, his cheekbones, his full lower lip with a feathery-light index finger. "I liked it. I should return the favor. What would you like to be called in bed?"
"Nothing." Illya now sounded sullen.
"Nothing at all like 'hey you?'"
The smile returned, warming the slight space between them. "Is that how you keep all your liaisons, um, straight?"
"I'm not teasing you," Napoleon said, even though he was doing just that. "What did Katya call you in bed? Illyusha?"
Illya nodded. "Yes. But everyone called me Illyusha. It was my name, not a form of intimacy." Illya averted his face and shrugged. "I don't recall we were ever in a bed. I remember milking cows in a stable, not a stable, a building with domesticated animals, with straw and—"
"A barn?" Napoleon supplied.
The sudden laugh triggered an answering jolt in Napoleon and he realized, again, how much he enjoyed hearing Illya laugh.
"A barn. Yes." Illya pulled himself closer, kissing the side of Napoleon's neck and snuggling closer once more. "I guess you were right about my not being suitable farmer-material. But everyone called me Illyusha."
"God forbid I should be just anyone." Napoleon turned and pressed his mouth to Illya's, not feeling the welcome abandonment he had sensed before. Illya opened himself to the kiss, allowed the tongue in his mouth, but did not suck on it in mindless rapture. There was more acquiescence than enjoyment in the kiss.
Napoleon raised his head enough so he could stare into his friend's familiar blue eyes. Perhaps Illya did not wish to be reminded of the past, of roads not taken. "When I think of you, only 'Illya' comes to mind. I have had only a brief time to think of you in bed. Shall I call you sweetheart or dearest or cutesy boots? I lack the equivalent to 'Polya and I would like such a sentiment." Napoleon renewed his grasp on Illya's cock. It had wilted a bit, as if retreating. "What am I doing wrong?" he asked.
"Talking so much." Illya smiled again, removing the sting from his words. "And your pronunciation of my name is unique enough. The true pronunciation has been lost for years as if it has become a secret ' Ill-leee-yaa' Just say that. It will remind me of you."
"Okay. Ill-leee-yaa." Napoleon tried to mangle his friend's name just so, realizing he had never quite gotten it right. "Ill-leee-ya, what would you like? Another handjob?"
"That's what this is called." Napoleon waggled his eyebrows. "So, shall I teach you to talk dirty in English?"
"It sounds so ugly. Surely there's another term. It sounds like work."
"I guess so. It's like 'blowjob.' Ever hear that one?"
Illya's eyes rolled skyward as he pondered the word and guessed the meaning. "Fellatio." he said. "That's prettier. Latin for 'to suck.' Blow seems imprecise, don't you think?"
"Would you like one? A blowjob?" Napoleon stroked the silky hair from Illya's forehead "It's something I give away. Not throw away—give."
"But it's your birthday." Illya said as his eyes lit with interest. His mouth twitched into a smile, almost as bright as the glow from his eyes.
"So it is. Imprecise as the word may be, I give very good ones and giving them gives me pleasure." Napoleon rained kisses on Illya's body, swiping one nipple with his tongue as he moved lower. He pressed his mouth into his friend's concave belly, moving toward his goal. Illya's cock bobbed and Napoleon kissed it before drawing it into his mouth. Illya bucked forward, gasping with satisfaction. "Have you ever had one before?" Napoleon asked as he removed his mouth from his friend's rampant cock and hoped the answer would be no. He wanted to introduce Illya to such sophisticated delights. Their eyes met and again Illya grinned, the smile a delight in itself. So nice to make him smile.
"Yes, Napoleon. I have had the pleasure. One of the things I like about blowjobs," Illya stumbled over the word, "is it renders one's partner silent."
"Ah, but you won't be so for long. I just ask you confine your enthusiasm to English. No Russian this time. Deal?"
Napoleon's mouth engulfed the hard cock, his tongue playing at the underside, laving it as he fondled Illya's balls, feeling them tense with desire. He'd make his friend forget all the fumbling blowjobs he had ever received.
"Oh!" Illya moaned. " Oh!" And then a gust of gasping, incomprehensible Russian, not just a sentence but another long litany ending in a breathless " 'Polya."
Napoleon withdrew his mouth and looked up, raising a censoring eyebrow.
"I'm sorry, " Illya said. "Please more. Please. Don't stop."
"We had a deal," Napoleon reminded him.
"I know. I'm sorry. I don't know the words. Please. Continue. Please."
"What words don't you know?"
"Napoleon. 'Polya. Don't do this. Don't give me lessons."
Napoleon grasped either side of Illya's tight ass and spread the cheeks. He insinuated his finger into the opening, the entrance already prepared for him. Illya stiffened at first, the cheeks of his ass contracted then relaxed, allowing the exploration. "Do you know how this feels, Illya?" Napoleon inserted his middle finger beyond the tight rim and searched until he found what he was looking for, pressing against Illya's prostate gland. "Has anyone touched you here?" Napoleon twirled his finger inside. His mouth just swiped Illya's penis, allowing him to feel the penetration. "Are you sure you don't want lessons?"
"Oh, yes. Yes." Illya gasped. "More." His hands reached forward and petted Napoleon's head, clasping the nape of his neck.
"Does this feel good?"
Another gasp. "Yes."
"No one has ever touched you...here." Napoleon's finger pressed deep inside of his friend, his mouth once again delivering light kisses to Illya's cock.
Illya moaned, the words pouring forth in a strangled gasp. "Oh! Actually yes. Oh!"
Napoleon concentrated on the 'Oh!' as he took the hard shaft deep in his throat. The 'Actually yes' pinged into his consciousness a bit later, stinging sharply like small, cold hailstones. He withdrew his mouth. His finger pulsed against the bud of Illya's prostate gland. "You've felt this before?'
"Please just continue. Please."
"And not merely at a doctor's appointment?"
"Please, Napoleon, why are you asking? Don't compare yourself. I want you. It's different with you."
"Different? Not new though. Different? How so?"
"Why should you even have to ask? You feel it yourself. Please." Illya's voice softened but his hands grappled to hold Napoleon's hair. "You're as bored as I am with sex."
"You don't seem bored."
The Russian phrases this time sounded vicious, guttural, and straight from the gutter.
Napoleon withdrew his finger and cradled his head against the palm of his hand, leaning on his elbow. "That didn't sound like a fond birthday wish."
"I assure you, it was not," Illya said. "This is the fabled Solo technique? It feels more like torture."
"Maybe you should give me a blowjob. Do something new."
Illya wrinkled his nose and glared. "You're slathered with Vaseline. I think this is testing my resolve too much. It reminds me—"
"Of?" Napoleon interrupted, wishing he had just kept silent. He was so used to bantering with Illya but why now? It was hardly the time or the place to engage in verbal fencing.
"It reminds me," Illya said, "of when we first were partnered or went on missions together. How you watched me in fights, how unsure you were of me."
"What does that have to do with this?"
"How you watched me, no matter how engaged you may have been with our adversaries. You didn't trust me."
Napoleon felt confused. "Again, what does that have to do with this?"
"You're taunting me," Illya replied. "I may lack some of the skills but I can and will do whatever you want. You discovered I knew how to fight; I had some usefulness in the field. I also have some in bed."
"I didn't mean to suggest you do not."
Illya didn't appear to be listening. "You don't have to run off with your beach bum professors as a substitute for what could be real. Don't be so unsure of me; you can have me. Anyway you want."
"God, you're arrogant." Napoleon paused between the words, keeping his voice low and steady, the way he did when his temper was triggered. "Just because you have given up on sex, you also want to imagine I'd rather have you than my other partners, that it's all subliminal Illya, the center of my universe. So many strings attached to this present, they just wind and wind and—" Napoleon twirled his index finger, miming the entanglement.
Illya's eyes met his and blinked a few times before turning bland, no fury in the gaze. He pushed away, backing off the bed and stumbled to the bathroom, the door slamming shut behind him.
Napoleon's temper subsided as if shut off by the bang of the door. His first inclination was to follow his friend and apologize. They didn't really argue much, but this little scene seemed to express all of Napoleon's previous misgivings. Sex would undermine their friendship. He got on his feet, taken aback when the bathroom door swung open and Illya emerged with a washcloth in his hand.
"Get back in bed," Illya said, sounding like a commanding officer.
Napoleon sat, confused by the playful smile on his friend's face, yet another smile.
Illya knelt between Napoleon's legs, wiping him clean with the warm washcloth. "No strings, my friend," Illya said. He bent down and kissed Napoleon's flaccid cock "And I've never done this, you want that assurance," he said before his mouth surrounded Napoleon's penis, taking him deep and smiling once again as it hardened in his mouth. He withdrew for just a moment. "Inexperience is not inability." Illya grinned up at Napoleon. "When you're in the back of my throat, see if I shouldn't have been in the back of your mind."
"I'm not going down there in my tuxedo, like the walk of shame."
"The walk of what?" Illya stood, freshly showered and shaved, stark naked at the foot of his bed.
"You know, like when you show up to work in the same clothes you wore the night before."
Hours had gone by; it was almost noon.
Illya rummaged through his bureau drawers and tossed Napoleon a sky blue, V-neck sweater. Napoleon pulled it over his head, examining his reflection in the mirror above the dresser. "I don't think this is a good color for me. It's a bit tight too."
"You look fine." Illya embraced his friend from behind and smiled into the mirror at Napoleon. He propped his chin on Napoleon's shoulder and sighed.
"Don't start," Napoleon warned. "It's almost lunchtime. What will Mrs. Ingram think we've been up to?"
"I don't know." Illya said unconcerned, and snuggled closer.
"And quit doing that. Put on some clothes. You're dripping on me."
"Yes, Napoleon." Illya squeezed him once more before moving away.
Napoleon sat on the bed, watching Illya as he dressed. His friend brought his usual determined absorption to this simple task, oblivious to Napoleon as he hurriedly pulled on his trousers and shrugged on his shirt. But there was a glow about him too. Napoleon knew exactly how Illya felt; his own body thrummed with contentment.
"That was wonderful," Napoleon said. "Thank you."
Illya paused between buttons on his shirt. "Happy birthday," he replied. "Many more?" Though he expressed the sentiment as a question, there was no hesitation behind the words. "Stol lot."
"Ah, so you can speak Polish." Napoleon leaned back, his elbows resting against the rumpled bed.
"Just that." Illya stood before the bureau mirror, arranging his hair with a military brush, absorbed with his reflection.
Though Napoleon hardly regretted the past few hours, he still entertained some misgivings. Illya's passion had surprised him and he felt uneasy at being entangled in the web of his friend's single-minded regard. As he had suspected, the gift had been too extravagant. "Where do we go from here?" he asked, needing not reassurance, but an understanding of what this meant to Illya. He wanted them to be on the same page, though he was hardly sure they read from the same book.
Illya turned to face his friend, leaning against the bureau. "We're going downstairs for pancakes with Mrs. Ingram. Have you forgotten? Oh!" Illya opened his closet and retrieved a two-pack of light bulbs from the shelf above his clothes. "I almost forgot," he said.
"I remember where we're going. I'm asking where do we go from here?"
"After Mrs. Ingram's then?" Illya grinned impishly. "I don't know. Wherever you want."
"What about what you want?"
"Don't worry about me. You worry too much."
Napoleon waggled his index finger at Illya. "I do worry." He worried that Illya would not want to do this again and worried that Illya had staked a claim.
"You needn't do so." Illya turned to the mirror again and smoothed his damp hair with both hands. "Where'd I put my gun?"
"It's between your book. A bookmark," Napoleon replied. He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. "I asked you a question and I would like an answer."
"You always worried about me." Illya's tone was low and measured as he turned to face Napoleon. "I can take care of myself. Really. Napoleon, whatever you want. I do mean that. Why ruin the honeymoon?"
"The what?" If he wasn't worried before—the honeymoon!
"I don't mean to distress you." Illya set the light bulbs on his bureau, as he hurried to retrieve his shoulder holster and gun from the living room. A black suit jacket soon obscured the tools of his trade.
"Honeymoon?" Napoleon echoed.
"Pancakes now." Illya grinned at him "Someday we will consummate this. Someday."
"You really do worry me, Illya."
"Why? Happy birthday, 'Polya. Stol lot," he said again. "I don't know the song so I apologize for not singing it."
Napoleon followed Illya down the single flight of stairs to Mrs. Ingram's apartment. The white-haired and still attractive older woman wiped her hands on a frilly floral apron, nodding a vague greeting at them. "I thought you were not going to come," she said, as she led them to the kitchen of her spacious and tidy apartment. "You said it would be a couple of hours, Illya." She sounded matter-of-fact, like an exasperated but overly indulgent mother.
"Have we been long?" Illya asked, smiling at her. Not the sort of older lady to be easily charmed, she did not smile back and turned toward her old-fashioned stove. "Do you want us to leave?" Illya asked.
"And waste this batter?" Illya now grinned at Napoleon as she turned on one of the burners of her stove. She used a wooden spoon to dollop the pancake batter into a greased wrought iron skittle indented with six circular shapes, one in the middle and five surrounding it. She turned from the stove and glowered at Napoleon. "That is a lovely color on you," she said, the lightness of her tone at odds with her somber expression. It was not a form of winking, coquettish flirtation. Her steely gray eyes, in fact, seemed to draw their own conclusions as her gaze swept over the satin stripe of his formal trousers.
"Thank you, " Napoleon said, feeling the hairs at the base of his skull tingle with embarrassment. He willed himself not to flush. Mrs. Ingram had always been so nice. She had even been welcoming to Simone and Irina. Why should he feel judged now? Why should he care? "Illya and I were—" he turned toward his friend hoping he would supply the explanation but he was no longer behind him. "Um, playing chess," he finished wondering how Illya had vanished so silently.
"I understand it's your birthday," Mrs. Ingram said. "Happy birthday." She stared at him, her small mouth pursing as if she had sucked on a lemon.
"Thank you," Napoleon said again.
"Which light?" Illya called from another room.
"The overhead," she called back. "The stepladder is in the front closet."
Mrs. Ingram turned the pancakes over as Napoleon took a seat at the head of her kitchen table. He outlined the red-stenciled floral pattern on the porcelain tabletop with his index finger, hoping Illya would hurry back.
"Would you care for a cup of coffee?" Mrs. Ingram asked, all stern politeness, and poured a cup for him without waiting for a reply. The orange cup rattled in its dark blue saucer as she set it in front of him. "You don't take cream if I recall. Or sugar. Not sweet."
"No, I don't. Sweets for the sweet. Thank you," Napoleon said and took a sip. The coffee burned the roof of his mouth and he grimaced in displeasure. "I'll see if Illya needs some help." He got up quickly and found Illya in her living room, tottering up an unsteady wooden stepladder and still as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Napoleon felt unsteady as he watched Illya, now on tiptoes, reach to unscrew the burned-out light bulb from the fixture in the center of the ceiling.
"Thanks for leaving me," Napoleon said.
Illya started at the sound of his friend's voice, wobbled, and struggled to maintain his balance as Napoleon closed the distance between them. The light bulb in Illya's hand fell to the floor but he regained his equilibrium, bolstered by Napoleon's steadying hands on his hips.
"You startled me," Illya said and smiled down from his perch at Napoleon as if making good on another present he had proposed on his own birthday: a totally docile and cheerful partner. "Hold on to me as I screw this in."
The flush that Napoleon had held off in Mrs. Ingram's kitchen finally reached his cheeks and he bent his head. Hold on to me as I screw this in. He supported his friend, his thumbs digging into Illya's supple ass and laughed. "How many Section Two agents does it take to screw in a light bulb?" he asked, repeating the setup to a series of jokes making the rounds, polack jokes at first that soon had metamorphosed into endless variations. He didn't have a ready punch line.
"Two," Illya replied absently. "One to screw in the light bulb and the other to search for bugs."
"Very funny," Napoleon said. "She hates me."
"Who?" Illya sounded distracted. "Mrs. Ingram? No she does not. There." Illya came down from his tiptoes. "Try the light. The switch is to the left of the door." He stood, flatfooted and steady at the top of the stepladder, as Napoleon threw the switch. "Ignition," Illya said as he descended the three steps of the wobbly stepstool. "She told me if she were thirty years younger she would set her hat for you."
"She did?" Napoleon doubted it but felt pleased all the same. Then he made a face. "What did she say about you then?"
"That I make her feel thirty years younger."
"Boys," Mrs. Ingram called from the kitchen, "the pancakes are getting cold."
Illya grinned as he tilted the stairs of the stepladder backwards and returned it to the front closet. "We'll just eat now and then you can go out with, was it Helena?"
"I broke that date," Napoleon said.
The pancakes were, as ever, exquisite and Napoleon ate them, more ravenous for a change than Illya. Mrs. Ingram fussed over them, in her fashion, never still and never joining them at the table.
"Who won the match?" she asked, pouring coffee for them and opening a bottle of Coca Cola for herself.
"What match?" Illya asked.
"It was a draw," Napoleon said at the same time.
As Napoleon dug into another helping of pancakes, he exchanged a glance with Illya and shook his head, feeling as if his feet had grown roots.