Love is Strong
Illya Kuryakin's back was against the wall and he knew it—had known it since meeting the new member of the elite Codes and Ciphers team. The man—Gregor Velosovitch—had stared at him, puzzled. He would not remain puzzled for long. He would remember—he would realize where he knew Illya from and then it would all be over. Was all over now.
Illya had maintained his composure until he was alone and now he was standing in his office, mind racing. It would come crashing down on him now—the forged identification, the recommendations extorted by blackmail—well prepared, but they would not stand up under the sort of scrutiny soon to be turned on them. Because the only truths on his documents were his name, his physical description and the names of those who had referred him to UNCLE's recruiting branch in Kiev. His age was wrong, his schooling, his family background—all were lies. His papers listed him as being five years older than he actually was, and far more educated. His security clearance was based on the same tissue of lies.
They would never have even considered him as he was—sixteen years old, graduate of one of Kiev's most prestigious private schools with top honors, true, but the bachelor's degree in science, the graduate degree from Cambridge—all, all faked. His family background—instead of the warm sprawling Russian family Illya had invented there was only his uncle, a top KGB official whose own title was a front, whose associations and job description would have wiped Illya out of contention from the start. And there were his own associations, all those men he had slept with, for information, for influence—he had been an unwilling co-conspirator with his uncle but up to his eyebrows in it for all that—and later on it had been for his benefit as well.
He had realized the power that his looks and sexual skills gave him, the lengths to which certain men would go to possess his slim, pliant—young, above all, young—body and, later, the depths to which they would sink to keep their depravity from being known. Illya had kept meticulous accounts, and when the time came he had called them all in, the result being his selection for UNCLE's training class in New York.
That had been his goal—escape from Russia, escape from his uncle, escape from the life he had led since he could remember. He had learned of the opening from one of his uncle's contacts, and had gone after it with the single mindedness peculiar to him, with a cold calculation and a complete lack of remorse. He had heard, later, that two of his 'references' had killed themselves and had only felt relief—two loose ends neatly tied up.
He had not even really known what UNCLE was—some sort of international secret police, he had supposed—and had cared less. The important thing was to get away. Once ensconced in America he could always find something else to do. He was brilliant, and he knew it—he wasn't concerned about being able to do the job he had lied so convincingly to obtain, and if he didn't care for UNCLE someone else would pay him to be brilliant for them.
But he loved UNCLE. Reading over their orientation materials, finding ways into computer files that he shouldn't have had access to for years to come, working with his teachers, and meeting Alexander Waverly—it was fresh air after the years of evil and corruption. An idealism he had never known he possessed woke and he dedicated himself to UNCLE's purpose and mission with fervor. He may have come in by mistake, but UNCLE would never have cause to regret it. So he had vowed, and he had turned his brilliance and his single mindedness of purpose to that goal and he had never looked back.
The Iron Curtain had then seemed an impermeable barrier between himself and his past, and although he'd had several bad moments when missions and assignments had sent him there, none had posed a serious threat to his position. Until now. Until now when a man from his past, a man who had known both him and his uncle, surfaced here in New York headquarters. It wouldn't be long before the man remembered him and then he would wonder. He would wonder how Illya Kuryakin could possibly have ended up here; an agent for the wrong side, a blood relative of one of the KGB's most notorious criminals—a whore.
Illya struggled with his rising panic. Panic wouldn't help him—would only hinder the clear thinking he'd always prided himself on. And he had to think clearly, he had to. Because they would be coming for him soon and what could he say? They would think him a mole. He would be arrested. Deported. He'd seen it before—UNCLE wasted no time on potential double agents. He would be interrogated, and drugged. They would wipe what information they could from his mind, and load him up with false data until even he could not tell one from the other. Then he would be sent home, a failed agent for his masters to deal with.
That Illya had no masters, that he had come in on his own with no hidden agenda except escape—no one would believe that. He would be put on a plane back to Kiev and his arrival made known to—his uncle, he supposed. They would assume Ivan Petrovich had planted his nephew deep under UNCLE's skin for reasons of his own. My record, Illya thought with a glimmer of hope. Surely... the opportunity to betray UNCLE had arisen more times than he could count over his career—in the laboratories, the training schools, in the field both alone and with Napoleon—and he had never taken it. Perhaps... but he wouldn't be the first double agent to turn again, to decide he liked life in America and abandon those who had sent him. That wouldn't save him. Nothing would save him.
I should kill myself, Illya thought then. Before they come, before they put me on that plane, before I'm delivered up to him. He was shaking now, despite all his efforts to control it. It was funny, really—he, Illya Kuryakin, known for his utter lack of fear under the worst circumstances, respected for his icy self control—was shaking.
Illya's fear of his uncle went bone deep. Ivan Petrovich had ruled his childhood and adolescence with an iron fist, had used and abused him from the time he was five years old, had beaten him and raped him and let others do the same if the price was right. How angry he must have been at Illya's escape—and how he would have nurtured and fed that anger over the years. He would be waiting at the airfield, Illya knew it, and although he tried to tell himself he was an adult now, a superb fighter and a trained killer, none of that helped. He would be restrained—with ankle and wrist manacles no doubt—chained and helpless, just the way his uncle liked him. Yes, he should kill himself now.
He took his gun out of his desk drawer and checked—fully loaded and ready. He sat down in his swivel chair, turned it so he was looking out the window—his last sight would be of Manhattan's towering architecture—and put the muzzle in his mouth. It was while he was adjusting it so the bullet would go straight through the brain stem that he caught sight of the photograph hanging on the wall beside the curtain pull. He stopped, mouth full of the taste of metal, and looked at it.
He and Napoleon, back in the days of their now legendary field partnership. Napoleon looked strikingly handsome, as always, in a black tuxedo and faultless white shirt. He had a glass of champagne in one hand, and the air of a gentleman of leisure—unless you looked at his face. He had reached out his free hand to touch Illya's shoulder. Illya, also in formal wear, long blond hair pulled back in its usual ponytail, was standing by his side. The touch had been a signal—seconds later they had been engaged in a blazing gun battle, firing as they retreated from the squadron of Thrush agents sent to intercept them.
The unfortunate society photographer who had snapped their picture—intrigued, as he'd insisted to his interrogators later, by the contrast between the two men, one so dark and powerfully built, the other so blond and slim—had spent a rough night explaining himself. Illya, who had been given the task of reviewing and destroying his film had done so, after copying that picture for himself. He'd copied it because he liked it, because Napoleon was the best friend he'd ever had and he'd wanted it. So he'd kept it, and later, years later when no one would recognize it or care if they did he'd framed it and hung it in his office. He, and Napoleon. He lowered the gun. Napoleon.
What would Napoleon think, when he heard of Illya's suicide? Of his purported treachery? He would think Illya had betrayed him, along with everybody else. Illya wished fervently that he could explain to Napoleon, tell him he'd gotten in over his head—been thrown in over his head—long before he knew what it was about, that he'd only done the best he could with the circumstances he'd been given, that Napoleon had been right to trust him, that that trust hadn't been misplaced. Ridiculous. At this point in their lives he probably couldn't even get in to see Napoleon without an appointment—and a good reason for making one.
He and Napoleon had drifted apart over the years since their field partnership ended. Napoleon was a very important man now—second only to New York Section Chief Jake Davenport himself, next in line for that position when Davenport moved to the West Coast, as he was supposed to do within the year. Napoleon was a man of power and influence, a man respected and even feared.
Illya hadn't seen him except in passing for years now. Napoleon's work life took up most of his time, and what was left over went to one or another of the women he dated. When they met in the hall Illya got a nod and a brief 'Illya', and on the two occasions when they had shared an elevator Napoleon had asked about his latest research project. Napoleon always knew what his staff was doing, knew everything that went on everywhere in the organization. Illya looked at the picture again.
They had been side by side because there would have been no way to alert Illya to the oncoming danger otherwise. Napoleon had always thought of those things, always guarded him with a care that seemed to go beyond that of one operative for another. He had risked his life and his career for Illya more than once, as Illya had done for him. "Illya has my back," Illya had overheard him say once, and it was true—as Napoleon had had his. They had been partners.
Now Illya stared at the picture and wondered. Did Napoleon—did Napoleon still have his back? Was it possible that Napoleon would at least listen to him—and believe him? Illya never lied to Napoleon—couldn't, and carry it off, and Napoleon knew it. Had teased him about it, back when they were still friends. And if Napoleon listened now, and believed, then he would never let Illya be taken away, taken into danger. He never had before.
"To the rescue once again," he had said lightly after breaking into a Thrush prison, killing seven guards and taking a bullet himself to bring Illya out. In fact... Illya looked at the gun in his hands.
If Napoleon ever took his own life, Illya would endlessly wonder why Napoleon hadn't come to him for help. It would haunt him. Was it possible that Napoleon would feel the same way? But—what about Napoleon's career? It wouldn't really be fair, to put him in that position. No, best to end it now. Illya lifted the gun again, and again his eyes came to the picture. That would be his last sight, then—not the indifferent skyline but the man who had taught him, protected him, and befriended him. The telephone in his outer office rang. He touched a switch, and listened to his secretary answer it, confirm that he was indeed there. Fear seized him. They were coming—they were coming now! He saw again his uncle, reaching for him, and he dropped the gun and ran.
He ran to his door, forced himself to slow down, to smile at Janet, to make some reference to the men's room, to walk, not run, through the hall. He dodged into a stairwell and raced up the four flights to the executive offices level. Once there he moved as quickly as he dared, heart pounding because he had left his gun behind, he had no quick death to resort to, he had thrown the dice and was staking all on a years' old friendship that might now only exist in his mind, and he was very afraid.
Ruth Jackson, Napoleon's personal assistant, looked up in surprise when Illya entered. "May I help you?"
"I need to see Mr. Solo," Illya said, and she made a show of consulting a calendar although Napoleon's schedule was no doubt committed to memory.
"I'm sorry, Illya. He's on a conference call. May I take a message?"
"Tell him it's important," Illya said urgently. "Tell him I have to see him right away." He wanted to say more, to evoke their partnership to Napoleon's mind, to find some catch phrase that would tell Napoleon it was more than important, that it was... but she was speaking on the phone now, too low for him to hear it, and then she looked up.
"He says can it wait twenty minutes."
Her eyebrows rose, but she relayed the answer, waited, then hung up. "Go on in," she said, and Illya hurried past her.
Napoleon was just hanging up his own phone. At sight of him, sitting behind his enormous desk—clear of papers, Napoleon always a man of orderly habits—Illya faltered. This was a formidable man, a man of power and authority. A man who—"Well?" Napoleon's voice was sharp, impatient. "I just closed a four way call that took two weeks to set up." He didn't actually say 'this better be good' but his tone implied it, and Illya swallowed.
"But..." Illya looked at him helplessly. He didn't know where to start, didn't know what to say and then, incredibly, that hard face softened.
"Illya, what is it? You look as if you've seen a ghost."
Yes I have, Illya thought. A ghost of a past I thought I'd left behind long ago, the ghost of a child who walked in mortal terror of the monster who shared his home, the ghost of an adolescent who broke every rule in the book to get away—the ghost of a friendship I have no business raising.
"Illya." Napoleon's voice was urgent, the sharp urgency of years past, when he knew that something was very wrong. "Talk to me."
"I'm in trouble," Illya said, and at the same time cast a look over his shoulder at the door, wondering how long it would be before the alarm went up, before the door slid open and they came for him.
"Yes." Illya lifted his eyes to Napoleon's face, aware that the shaking he hadn't yet brought under control was clearly visible to the man in front of him. "I—I am." He threw another look behind him and Napoleon reached out, thumbed the intercom.
"Ruth—I don't want to be disturbed. For anything."
"Yes, Mr. Solo."
Napoleon locked the door. "Tell me what I can do for you."
It poured out of him. The false application, the forged documents, the fake credentials. The lies. His uncle. The men—all those men he'd seduced, slept with, blackmailed. He couldn't look at Napoleon as he said that, staring at the floor, face hot. The desperate situation he'd been in. The urgency of his need to get away. The years in between—"I swear, Napoleon, I never meant—I didn't even really know what UNCLE was until I was in. I would never have betrayed it. I tried to make up for it." He forced himself to stop then because even he could hear how lame it sounded. So he went on. He told Napoleon about the man he'd seen today, the man who knew him. The fear—arrest, deprogramming, deportation, his uncle. The last, desperate thought that maybe—he shook his head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come. I'll leave."
Napoleon's intercom buzzed. He hit it with his fist, a short angry sound. "What? I said not to interrupt me."
"Mr. Davenport, Mr. Klein, Security Chief Bagwell and six security guards to see you, sir." Ruth sounded as calm as always but Illya could detect a faint edge in her voice.
"To see me?"
"Well—they're looking for Illya. Agent Kuryakin," she added hastily, no doubt at a scowl from one of Napoleon's visitors. "I told them you two were in a meeting but they—" she was interrupted.
"Open up Solo. Don't make us think you were in on this too. Open up before we force it open." They could, and both men knew it. Napoleon pressed the door open button, came out of his chair, caught Illya by the arm and pulled him in, behind him, so when Davenport and the rest entered the position was clear. Napoleon hadn't drawn his weapon but his hand hovered near it and Davenport saw that too.
"Agent Solo. Step aside."
"That is a direct order."
"I realize that. No."
"We only wish to ask him a few questions."
Illya shook his head at that because he knew better, they would ask him many questions and then they would... but Napoleon was a solid bulwark between him and what threatened him, Napoleon did have his back, still, after all these years. They would hesitate before they... and when Davenport spoke again the frustration was clear in his voice.
"Do you understand what you are doing? You are shielding a man who has been exposed as a double agent. I know it must be hard to believe. It was hard for us as well. Surely you know we have looked into this thoroughly. The documents were good," he was addressing Illya now, over Napoleon's shoulder, "but they have not withstood the examination to which we have subjected them."
"Good for a sixteen year old," Napoleon said. "Hard to believe our experienced personnel in Kiev were really taken in by them."
"Yes, well. Other inducements were evidently used to overcome suspicion." The contempt in his voice struck Illya like a blow, and he flinched from it.
"And I presume," Napoleon went on, "that those operatives will also be called to account. Sex with a minor, a boy of sixteen, as inducement for passing on false papers? Quite a scandal."
"We hope to avoid a scandal."
"Oh, but you won't," Napoleon said softly. "I guarantee it. And there were all the years before, too—I wager Illya could tell some interesting stories about some well known men if he chose."
"It would not be to his advantage."
"How so? It seems to me that he has very little to lose at this point. Mr. Davenport, let's stop fencing. Illya has told me what happened."
"So he says."
"He will tell you also. You will listen, and check out his story. Then we can talk again."
"Certainly, Agent Solo." Davenport's voice was patient. "We will escort Agent Kuryakin to the Security Office. There he can repeat his—ah, explanation."
Illya moved closer to Napoleon, who was shaking his head. "No. Right here, in my office. We can sit down and go over it—without the extra security."
Illya watched Davenport confer with his colleagues. It took only a few minutes, but Illya knew it was Napoleon's position that was being evaluated as well as his own. Napoleon must know it too, but he was perfectly composed. Only his eyes would show otherwise, and Davenport was no doubt evaluating them along with everything else.
Davenport dismissed the guards to Napoleon's outer office. His stare met Illya's again. "But you understand, Agent Kuryakin, that the time for confidences has long passed."
"I—" Illya began and Napoleon silenced him with a hand gesture.
"You're getting ahead of yourself. Before we start I want the recorder on, and I want Burton here so Illya doesn't have to go through this again for OpIntell. I want someone checking every element of his story as he tells it. I want the results of that check given to us as soon as possible. I want there to be no question as to his innocence."
"Innocence?" Davenport's mouth twisted at the word. "We already know—"
"He was sixteen, in a man made jungle, doing the best he could to survive. That has to be taken into account."
"And you are this sure that the facts will bear him out."
"Yes. I know Illya. I am absolutely sure."
Davenport looked at Illya again. "You realize the position in which you have placed Agent Solo?"
"Yes." He could barely breathe, Napoleon's words having closed his throat.
"If you are lying, it will reflect not only on you, but on him as well."
If you are lying, Davenport had said. If. For the first time, Illya saw a ray of hope. "Yes. I understand." He sat at Napoleon's urging, and watched him gesture for a chair of his own, sit down by his side. By his side, the way it had always been. Knowing that made it easier to sit there and wait for Sam Burton, Head of Operations and Intelligence.
The questioning took a very long time. Illya told his story and retold it until even the seamiest details were dulled to routine, although the shame didn't lessen. The shame burned him alive. They questioned him sharply, no doubt sensing with the interrogator's skill that under his protestations he knew himself to be guilty of something, if not treason, but Napoleon was alert to any shade of disrespect or bullying, and stopped it. Illya talked about his uncle, and about the sordid assignments he had been given from his earliest years. He told of his growing despair and the need for escape—about his plan to do so and the lengths to which he had gone to accomplish it. He talked until his voice was hoarse and the humiliation of saying these things to the people he worked with every day was almost as strong as the fear. Finally, when he was worn out from it, when he felt he would do or say anything just to make it end, Napoleon called a halt.
"You've heard enough," he said flatly.
"The confirmation is not in yet."
"You don't need him here for that."
"True. Agent Kuryakin—I will have security escort you to a holding area."
"You mean a cell," Napoleon snapped. "Unacceptable. You may release him into my custody. I will take full responsibility."
The enormity of the demand silenced everyone. Davenport eyed Illya with something in his eyes that Illya couldn't identify.
"Agent Kuryakin. Do you understand that if there is a problem, if you are not available when next we wish to speak, that Agent Solo will be tried and convicted of giving aid and comfort to an enemy agent, and will face a sentence of life in prison?"
"He does," Napoleon said, and Davenport made an impatient sound.
"I wish to hear it from him. Agent Kuryakin, do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir. I will be available. You have my word."
"Hmm" It was Illya's face, and Illya's eyes he was considering now. Illya waited. He had nothing to hide, not anymore. He had nothing left, period. He had given it all up, given it away, and he was empty. He didn't even know how he was still sitting upright, still answering coherently, when he was so empty. Davenport nodded. "We will contact you when we need you. Agent Solo—you will be at your place of residence?"
"Very well. Gentlemen, you are dismissed under a Level One watch. We expect you both to leave headquarters immediately, and not to return unless summoned."
"Yes sir," Napoleon said and Illya nodded..
Illya followed Napoleon into his luxurious penthouse apartment. He still didn't understand how he was functioning at all. He told himself he should be glad to be empty, relieved that the burden of secrecy he'd carried for so long was finally laid down. And maybe he was. Maybe, underneath the crushing fatigue, and the cold that was making his teeth chatter, he was glad. Maybe... then Napoleon was peering directly into his face. "Illya. I think you should sit down now, Illya."
Obediently Illya sat, right where he was, and would have fallen to the floor if Napoleon hadn't grabbed him. "Not there," he said, and there was a trace of laughter in his voice. "Come on... okay, never mind. I've got you." Illya's legs, having given way, would no longer support him and Napoleon carried him over to the sofa, deposited him there. "Better?"
"What?" Illya blinked up at him, disoriented. What had happened? Why was he horizontal while Napoleon was still vertical? And why was the sofa tipping slowly backwards? "No. Can't you make it be still, Napoleon? I'm dizzy, it's spinning so." He clutched at the cushions.
"I'll try," Napoleon said, and the laughter was gone. He propped Illya's feet up on pillows and went away.
Left behind, Illya felt bereft. His hands and feet ached from the cold, and he was wretchedly alone. He had always been alone. It was all too much, the loneliness and the shame and the fear. He wished fervently that he had just gone ahead and pulled the trigger while the gun was in his mouth. He would have been spared the interrogation, spared the contempt on Davenport's face. Napoleon would have been spared the judgmental stare, the suspicious scrutiny.
Then he felt the edge of the sofa go down as Napoleon sat. Napoleon smiled at him, and the warmth of his smile warmed Illya too, warmed him as much as the quilt Napoleon laid over him, tucked around him. His hands were still stiff with cold, and Napoleon took them between his own, chafed them gently. The sofa had stopped spinning, and drowsiness stole over him. He closed his eyes.
"You can rest," Napoleon said, and his voice sounded very far away. "You rest and I'll work, all right? When you're ready we can talk about dinner." Without waiting for an answer he rose, and crossed to his computer station.
Illya tried to stay awake a little longer, just to savor the warmth and the awareness of Napoleon at his desk, so close to him, then he heard Napoleon swear softly. Lifting his head, he looked towards the sound. Napoleon was sitting at his computer, and anger was in every line of his body. Even as Illya watched him Napoleon brought a clenched fist down lightly on the desk and swore again.
"They won't let you work, will they."
Napoleon turned in his chair. He was scowling so ferociously that Illya shrank from it. "No. I am locked out of all but the most elementary levels—my codes and passwords are useless." He tried another route while Illya watched, and met the same blank screen.
"Me too." He tried something else and for a moment the screen flickered, then cleared. 'Access denied' began flashing and Napoleon turned it off, sat staring at it in visible frustration. "Damn!" he said for the third time. Illya bit his lip.
"Maybe if you call them—"
"And say what?"
"Say that you were wrong. That they can come and get me." His voice shook. He didn't want them to come for him, didn't want to leave the security of Napoleon's apartment for an UNCLE holding cell, for an airplane, for his uncle's grasp... but he didn't want to get Napoleon in trouble, either. Although he should have thought of that sooner, shouldn't he. It had been completely selfish of him to have gone to Napoleon's office, begged for his help—selfish, and wrong. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault."
"Yes it is. I shouldn't have involved you. I should have just—just shot myself like I was going to do in the first place. It would all be over now. You wouldn't be in trouble—none of this would have happened. I'm really sorry, Napoleon. I shouldn't have presumed on—on an old friendship. It's not as if we're partners anymore. I just—I was just so afraid. I came to you because I was afraid and you always—you used to always rescue me. I was thinking of me. I should have thought of you. Maybe it's not too late. You can call them. I'll go with them. You—do you maybe have one of those suicide pills left? I wouldn't tell them I had it, or where I got it, and then if they were going to put me on the plane I could use it."
"What do you mean, we're not partners anymore? Of course we're still partners. I always think of you—Illya." He got up, crossed back over to the sofa, sat down. "Look at me."
Illya averted his face, pulled the blanket up over it. It was a childish gesture, and Napoleon laughed softly. "Illya—take that thing away from your face and look at me. When were you going to shoot yourself?"
"After I saw Velosovitch I knew it was all over. I thought I should just kill myself. I had the muzzle in my mouth when I saw it."
"You saw what?"
"Nothing." Embarrassed, he retreated further under the blanket but Napoleon pulled it away.
"Saw what?" he repeated.
"Your picture. Our picture." He gave up the struggle for the blanket and Napoleon tucked it around his shoulders again. The gesture gave him the courage to go on. "It made me think... it made me remember... how it used to be."
"In my office I have a picture of us." He flushed. What a pitiful admission that was.
"Yes. From a dinner we were at a long time ago—well, it started out as a dinner."
"And ended as a shooting match."
"Hold on a minute." Napoleon was gone again but only for a moment, then he sat back down, closer this time. "Tell me what you think of this."
Illya stared. Napoleon was holding a picture, the picture, the exact same picture. Different frame, but—"Where did you get it?"
"The same place you did, I imagine. From that photographer's film before it was destroyed."
"Again, for the same reason you did. Presumably. Because I liked it. Because it's the only memento I have of—of us. Of the way it was. Besides," he held it out, considered it. "I look remarkably handsome in evening wear."
Illya was surprised by his own snort of laughter. "You always did think very highly of your appearance," he said, and now Napoleon laughed.
"A good agent has to be aware of all his advantages. Otherwise he can't use them effectively."
"And you did."
"So did you."
"I know." Illya bit his lip. He wanted to go back under the blanket again and stay there, but settled for closing his eyes.
"I'm sorry." Napoleon put the picture down. "That was unfortunate. I didn't mean it the way it sounded."
"But you're right."
"Well, sometimes that's the only weapon we have, Illya. You're not to blame for wielding it."
"I'm sorry you can't get into your computer files."
"It's not your fault." Illya shook his head. "Illya. It is not your fault. None of this is your fault. You didn't choose your uncle, or the position he put you in. You didn't choose to be his—his tool. You chose to get out, and you used the only means at your disposal to do so. I don't blame you. I applaud you.
"Yes." Illya pushed himself up, so they were looking directly into one another's eyes, and stared at him. Napoleon stared back, and, after a moment, Illya lay down again.
"Well." He stroked loose hair off Illya's forehead. "You're welcome. I only wish—I wish you could have come to me sooner. All those years together, and I had no idea."
"I just wanted to forget it. I wanted to put it behind me, and forget all about it."
"And did you?"
"No. Not really." He wished Napoleon would stroke his hair again. It had been so long since Napoleon had touched him. How he had cherished Napoleon's brief brushes of contact, a hand on his shoulder, or cupping his elbow to lead him through a crowd; the occasional back rub, or supportive arm when he was injured. He sighed, thinking of it, and then Napoleon laid the back of his hand on his forehead. Illya held very still. Napoleon smiled at him.
"You're doing better than you were," he said, and removed his hand. "You should get some hot food inside you. Want me to fix something?"
"No, thank you." He didn't want Napoleon to do anything that would involve leaving. "I'm not hungry."
"No thank you." If it were possible he would clamp both hands around Napoleon's arm, force him to remain right where he was, sitting on the sofa, so close that their bodies were touching. "You didn't know I was such a coward, did you."
"I've never seen you this afraid before, no, if that's what you mean. The word coward is wrong."
"No it's not. I was terrified. I couldn't even hide it. They all saw it. Davenport—everyone. You. I'm so afraid of him—even today. Even though I'm an adult now, just the thought of seeing him put me right back where I was at five, in a blind panic just at the thought of him. How can you have any respect for me at all, having seen that?"
Napoleon frowned in the way he had while trying to marshal his thoughts, and Illya watched him. "My respect for you is not conditional, Illya," he began, and Illya knew he meant it. Something that had been hard and tight inside him for a very long time loosened. Napoleon was going on. "Ivan Petrovich was a dangerous man. An evil man. You were in his power. Of course he frightened you then, and now. But—Illya, has it not occurred to you that he would be an old man now? You describe a man in his forties and fifties. That was a long time ago. And the power base has changed. He is in no position to harm you. Your danger is real, but it does not come from Ivan Petrovich."
Illya stared at him. If Napoleon had suddenly started speaking in an unknown tongue, it would have meant more to him. "You don't understand," he said finally. "You don't know him."
Napoleon looked at him oddly. Then he reached out, brushed Illya's cheek with the back of his thumb. It was piercingly sweet, and Illya closed his eyes. "All right," Napoleon said, and his voice was very gentle. "You're right. I don't know him."
Illya smiled at him. Napoleon always understood. He had forgotten that, how Napoleon seemed to reach right inside him. "What do you think will happen now?"
"I think once your story checks out some arrangement will be made. Mr. Davenport isn't a monster. I think you'll be allowed to go on with your work pretty much as before."
"But you'll never be Section Chief now."
"Perhaps not." He sighed, and smiled at the same time. "I'll have to wait and see on that. It's not the end of the world, if I don't get that promotion."
"It is, for you. It's all you've ever wanted. It's everything you've worked for. And I took it away from you. Because I was selfish and afraid and—I'm sorry, Napoleon."
"That's all right." Napoleon stroked his hair some more. It felt pleasant, and Illya smiled at him. "You were afraid," Napoleon said, then, "and you came to me. I wouldn't have it any other way. Partners, Illya, remember? That's why I kept this," he indicated the picture, now lying on the coffee table. "To remind me."
"We've barely spoken in years."
"I know. I'm sorry, for that."
"You were busy."
"I was busy—among other things—so I didn't call you. But you didn't call me either."
"I know." Napoleon's hand was warm, and the gentle motion made him drowsy. His eyes drifted closed, and he forced them open again. "But I missed you."
"I missed you too. I thought I had my reasons, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe we were both wrong, to let what we had slip through our fingers. I'm turning into a... a..."
"Man of steel," Illya said sleepily, and Napoleon snorted.
"Is that what they call me?"
"I suppose it could be worse. And you?"
"A freezer wrapped in a lab coat."
"Ah. We're a sorry pair then, aren't we."
"I suppose I am. I didn't know you were."
"But together, we're something different."
Illya yawned. "Together we're perfect," he said, and this time when his eyes closed he let them stay that way.
Napoleon sat there, on the edge of his couch, in the middle of this day that had gone so awry. It felt odd, having nothing to do. He pulled the blanket more closely around Illya's shoulders. Illya looked much younger in sleep, lips slightly parted, long eyelashes lying on his pale skin. His hair fanned out on the sofa cushion, the bright gold of a wheat field in the sun.
Illya was beautiful. Napoleon had always thought so, had observed Illya's effect on both sexes with wry amusement because he knew Illya never had any intention of following through on the unspoken promises he made in the line of duty. He would bat those eyelashes when required, slant seductive looks up through them, stretch those legs out in front of him, seemingly oblivious of his effect but he was aware, Illya knew full well the power his looks gave him and it all meant nothing. Nothing at all.
Even the lovers he took when so inclined meant nothing. Man or woman—Illya used and dismissed them without even the pretense of a courtship, of affection. Napoleon, who always played the game out with whatever woman he was pursuing, had had to admire Illya's chill reserve, the way he managed to offer everything and give nothing. Illya had sex the way he ate and drank—it was a necessity of the body and that was all. Napoleon had wondered what it would take, to melt that ice, and what it would be like when it happened. He had a strong suspicion that a passionate nature lay under the frozen surface, only awaiting the right touch to bring it to life. His touch.
He had not missed the way Illya responded to him over the years, the way Illya flushed up when their eyes met, and held. The attraction between them was a tangible thing, so tangible that rumors had floated, during the years of their partnership; rumors that they were more than friends, that Napoleon occasionally strolled on the wild side with his Russian partner. Those rumors had been the real reason he had distanced himself from Illya after the fieldwork ended. He had thought it was better for both of them, for their careers and their reputations. There was no valid reason, now, for them to spend time together. No reason at all, except... he ran his fingers down Illya's hair, twined a strand around them, held it to the light. Admired it.
He had told himself it was sensible to stay apart; rational, expedient. But now here they were anyway. Together again. Illya's life hanging in the balance, careers in jeopardy after all. Both of their careers. Because the rumors had been right, hadn't they. It wasn't just Illya responding to him. He responded to Illya, too, with everything that was in him. He had tried to put it aside, had thought that it would fade with time. But it hadn't, and now that they were together again he knew it never would have. They were meant to be together. His apartment—comfortable, privileged, empty—was at last a home, because Illya was there, sleeping on his sofa. Even as Napoleon thought that Illya shifted, reached out, and Napoleon took his hand and held it. Illya quieted, and even when his breathing told Napoleon he was again in the depths of slumber his fingers curled around Napoleon's as if to a lifeline, and Napoleon lifted them to his lips. They were warm now against his mouth, and they were his lifeline, too..
Something shifted inside him, an odd sensation, an interior realignment and he held his breath, waiting, wondering what was happening to him. When his vision cleared and he looked down at Illya's serene face again nothing had changed, and yet it seemed that everything had changed. Love, long denied, had awakened. And love's authority was absolute.
"I love you," he said aloud, to hear himself speak it and for a moment Illya's hand tightened in a wordless, unconscious acknowledgment and response. Napoleon kissed his fingers again and settled down to wait, to wait for Illya to wake up and then—then he would find out, just how it was when the spring thaw came and ice melted. Steel would melt too, then, and they would be one.
Illya slept for two hours, during which time Napoleon held his hand, played with his hair and made plans. He wasn't losing Illya again. Illya would move in with him, and they would be together openly. Listing Illya as his cohabitant would throw the mantle of Napoleon's authority and prestige over him so completely that even UNCLE's executive board would think twice before moving against him. It would be better if they could be married, of course, but you couldn't have everything. He would look into Illya's immigration status, and take whatever steps were necessary to protect him. Already he felt like a new man, more alive than he had been in years. He laid it all out in his mind, their shared future stretching before him, and rejoiced at the sight. No detail seemed too small for consideration. He would buy another dresser for Illya's clothes, but there were two big closets in his bedroom and he was only really using one. The other had accumulated an assortment of off season clothing and other odds and ends that could be moved to the storage basement. He would... then Illya's hand twitched inside his, fingers opening, then squeezing Napoleon's. He stirred, stretched and opened his eyes. Napoleon smiled at him.
"Hello." Illya pulled his hand free, rubbed his forehead. "What—oh." Flushing, he propped himself up on one elbow, trying vainly to push his hair behind his shoulders. He struggled to a sitting position and Napoleon helped, tucked pillows behind him, rearranged the blanket.
"Illya—I've been thinking."
"About us," Napoleon said, and reached for Illya's hand again. "You were right, when you said that together we were perfect. I... nothing in my life has been perfect for a long time. Not since the last time we were together. I want us to be together again. I want us to be together forever. I was a fool to deny how I felt. I love you."
"Is that what this is, between us?" Illya asked with all his old curiosity, as if he really didn't know, and wanted to very badly. "Is this what it used to be? Love?"
"Love," Napoleon repeated. "I love you. Illya Kuryakin, I love you with everything that is in me. I've been perfectly happy just sitting here, holding your hand and building—building castles in the air. I hope... I hope you don't think I'm presumptuous. I haven't even asked you."
"Castles in the air," Illya repeated. "For us? The two of us?"
"But we've barely even seen one another..."
"I know. I said I was a fool. How did I live without you? How did I work with you all those years and not—not reach out for you and bring you close?" He did, feeling, with wonder, Illya's head come to rest on his shoulder, breath warm on his neck, hair tickling his skin.
"I love you too, Napoleon. I've always loved you without using that word, even to myself."
"You love me," Napoleon said, and had he thought himself happy before? Now he was soaring.
"Yes. I love you."
Napoleon kissed him, and the world changed again. He was no longer unsure, no longer hesitant. He claimed his lover with this kiss. He opened Illya's mouth, met Illya's tongue with his own, wrapped around it as their arms were wrapped around one another. It was good, oh, it was so good. His hand went to Illya's belt, and then he pulled back.
"Not like this," he said, panting. "Not—not all rough and half dressed on the couch. Come with me." He took Illya's hands, pulled him to his feet and it had been a long time, since they had been in the field together but their bodies knew one another; were still in perfect accord. In the bedroom, Illya turned to face him.
"I trust you," he said, and joy struck Napoleon to the heart once again. He couldn't answer, so he began unfastening Illya's shirt. Illya shivered, reached out and did the same for him. Naked, they stood and just looked.
"You are beautiful," Illya whispered, reaching out to trace the line of Napoleon's bicep, his elbow, down his forearm to his hand. Napoleon closed it, drew him even closer.
"And you," he used his free hand to touch Illya's face, laying his open palm against it, "are lovely beyond my wildest dreams."
"And you don't care, about all those others."
"No. Do you?"
"No. But I wish—I wish I weren't quite so well handled. For you. I wish I came to you untouched."
"Untouched by love," Napoleon said and Illya nodded against his hand in mute acknowledgment. "As am I. Until now."
"Until now," Illya echoed and they sat on the bed, hands still clasped, Napoleon still cupping his face. Illya kissed his palm, and Napoleon's throat tightened. He eased Illya down onto his back and stretched out on top, every part of their bodies so close, skin to skin, bone to bone, flesh to flesh. He moved on Illya, slowly at first, then faster. Illya moaned, head turning from side to side on the pillow. Napoleon caught his face between strong hands and kissed him, drinking deeply of his depths.
When ice melted it was pure and sweet as a mountain stream and he was melting too, unable now to tell where Illya began and he ended. He gasped out something to that effect against Illya's lips, and Illya too whispered incoherent words. Napoleon only caught one in ten but he heard all he needed to hear; words of love, and pleading because the finish was close, so close. Illya opened his legs, wrapped them around Napoleon's waist, offering, insisting, and when Napoleon sank into him there was nothing for each but the other, and their souls were one.
They lay panting, inhaling the other's scent with each breath. Illya's legs quivered and he unfolded them from their position around Napoleon's waist, releasing him. Napoleon turned, drew him close, draping his leg across Illya's now, and they were quiet on the bed. Napoleon began stroking his hair again. "This is where it began," he said aloud. "Watching you sleep, your hair between my fingers, feeling as though I were falling."
"Falling in love. I was looking at your eyelashes, and your mouth—looking at all the years past, thinking how glad I was that you had trusted me and come to me."
"You'll really never be Section Chief now."
"So you say. Watch me. I'm already far more powerful than they know. Watch me climb, Illya. They'd better not use you—us—to try and stop me. I'll knock them out of my way and climb to the top and take you with me."
"And if not?"
"If not..." his arms tightened. "I am still the most fortunate man on earth. Because I have you. And you have me. And we will be so happy..." He kissed Illya's smiling lips and Illya kissed him back. "It will be a scandal."
"Yes. And I'd like to see anyone try to stand in your way. I might have something to show them myself."
"There you go." He laughed out loud, feeling light, and young, and—and happy. He was happy. And Illya looked happy too. They kissed some more, and then they turned one to the other and slept.
Napoleon woke and looked at the clock by his bedside table. One thirty in the morning. In his arms, Illya still slept. Napoleon smiled at him, dropped a kiss on his forehead and began to roll away, out of bed. Illya stirred. "Napoleon?"
"Be right back," he whispered. "Keep my spot warm." He watched Illya move onto his side of the bed, evidently taking the instructions literally, and smiled. "I'll be back."
He used the bathroom, then padded out to the living room, turned on his computer. Surely they wouldn't have blocked him out of the most routine... and they hadn't. He accessed his personnel file and blithely changed his marital status from 'Single' to 'Life Partner', UNCLE's all inclusive umbrella that covered anyone in a monogamous, committed relationship which for one reason or another had not been formalized by marriage. He and Illya—he smiled as he typed in the name—would be only one of many couples under that classification. Just a keystroke, but it changed everything. He could almost hear Illya say, 'You'll never be Section Chief now,' and shook his head. They wouldn't dare use it against him. He had watched those changes take effect over the years without ever thinking they would apply to him, and now they did. He—they—could even request personal leave, the traditional honeymoon. UNCLE always had been a liberal employer. Pleased with himself, Napoleon turned off his computer and made his way back to bed.
Illya was awake. Napoleon slid under the covers and gathered him in. "Hey," he whispered. "I didn't mean to keep you up."
"That's all right."
"After the first ten years you won't even notice when I leave." He heard it as he said it, the solid commitment of it. Illya hugged him, and Napoleon hugged him back.
"Sometimes I suppose I'll leave," Illya said.
"Sometimes you will. And then I'll keep your spot warm for you."
"Mmm." He wriggled a little closer. "I love you, Napoleon."
"And I love you. Do you want to know what I just did?"
"If you want to tell me."
"I just married us. Congratulations."
"For the record?"
"You'll never..." Illya began, and Napoleon kissed him, stopping the words.
"Yes I will. What about you? You're next in line for Laboratory and Research Sciences Supervisor."
"It's not the same thing. But I was counting on your recommendation. You can't do that now. They'd say you were biased."
"They'd be right. You should get it anyway. Who else? Piper doesn't want it and he's the only one with seniority."
Illya yawned. "George likes to work regular hours. Besides, he knows I'm more qualified."
"My Russian genius," Napoleon said, and kissed him again.
"My American superpower," Illya said, and this kiss was longer. "Don't we get a vacation now?"
"After everything is settled I'll take you anywhere you want to go," Napoleon promised him. "I'll take you to Hawaii if you want, and marry you on the beach."
"That's all right. But a beach would be nice. I love the ocean."
"I know you do. We'll look for waterfront property somewhere—on the Jersey coast maybe, or out on the Island."
"That's right—you're very rich, aren't you. I forgot."
"And now you're very rich too. And..." a banging on the front door interrupted him. Illya nearly jumped out of his skin and Napoleon thought something ugly about his colleagues. A knock on the door at night for Illya... "Bastards," he said aloud and got up. "I'll answer it. You get dressed."
"I'm coming with you." .
"All right." Napoleon shrugged into his robe, handed one to Illya. "Don't worry. I'm sure it's all right."
"Then why are they here now?" He followed Napoleon out to the living room, hearing the banging again.
"They think they're fucking with you," Napoleon said, and turned off the alarm. "They forget they're fucking with me too." He opened the door and two armed men stood there. The taller held out his ID and Napoleon looked at it, although he recognized both of them.
"We're here for Illya Kuryakin," the other one said, and Illya lifted his chin.
"Come with us, please."
"We're both coming," Napoleon said, and gestured for them to enter. "Fully clothed, so if you gentlemen will have a seat we'll be right with you." He saw them look at one another, then back at him. Whatever they saw on his face made them nod.
"We'll wait." They didn't sit down. "If you'll leave the doors open sir, we won't have to accompany you."
"That will be acceptable," Napoleon said and he led Illya back to the bedroom. They dressed quickly and Illya ran a brush through his hair, tied it tightly behind him. He looked calm, but there was a bluish tinge to his lips and he was very pale. "Just a moment," Napoleon said, when both were ready. He rummaged in his closet, came out with a pair of handcuffs. "Just to be sure," he said and locked one around Illya's wrist, checked that it wasn't too tight and closed the other end around his own arm. "There. Just in case somebody wants to get cute." Out in the living room, the senior guard looked at them askance.
"That won't be necessary, sir."
"Glad to hear it," Napoleon said. "After you, gentlemen." He set the alarm again and locked the door behind them.
Illya looked at the cuffs as they left Napoleon's apartment—his apartment now, too. Would he ever see it again? Or had they decided to send him back? Word could already have been sent to the Ukraine. How pleased his uncle would be, at this turn of events. How... Illya shut his mind against that train of thought. It would be all right. Napoleon had said so, and Napoleon would know.
"You won't pass through the metal detector wearing those," the younger man pointed out as the elevator brought them down to the lobby.
"Not my problem," Napoleon returned evenly and Illya gave him a quick look. Napoleon's face was set hard; no trace, now, of the indulgent and playful lover.
Nothing more was said until they arrived at UNCLE headquarters. The alarms did indeed go off at each station and each time they were patted down, wanded, and passed along. The final checkpoint put them in the executive boardroom, where the entire board waited. Davenport raised an eyebrow at the handcuffs. "I know," Napoleon said. "Not necessary. But we'll keep them on all the same—until this issue is resolved."
"It has been."
"Tell me about it."
"I see you have made a change in your personnel file—specifically in your marital status."
"I won't insult you by asking if it was just for this occasion."
"You may both be seated." Once they were, Davenport sat also. "Agent Kuryakin."
"Yes." Illya eyed him warily.
"Thank you for being willing to meet with us at this hour."
"Um—you're welcome." He didn't see what choice he had had, but he was willing to return civility for civility. He was very grateful for the unyielding metal cuff that linked him to Napoleon. If any part of their plan had involved spiriting him away, it was thwarted now
"We have researched your story extensively. All elements check out as true and, in fact, you understated. The hospital records were quite thorough. I—we all—found ourselves appalled that a young child with the injuries you suffered was repeatedly returned to the custody of the man who inflicted them."
"They were afraid of him," Illya said, surprised at how calm his voice was.
"Yes, well, be that as it may. It is also clear, from everything we have learned, that your later—er, activities were at his direction and for his benefit."
"There was nothing you could do to extricate yourself from your situation?"
Illya shook his head. "No. There was no one willing, or able, to help me. It's hard to explain now how powerful he was. With one phone call he could make anyone disappear, and everyone knew it. No one was going to stand against him for me—why should they? I was nothing to them. I was nothing to anyone." Napoleon shifted in his seat, and Illya smiled at him. "I always knew if I was going to get out it would have to be on my own."
"What exactly led you to UNCLE?"
"The opening was in America. My uncle—I didn't think his superiors would ever let him leave the country, not with all he knew. I thought I'd be safe from him here."
"What else was a factor in your choice?"
"Nothing else. I didn't know anything about this organization. I assumed it was some sort of secret police."
"And why was that?"
"Because of the men who could get me in. They were agents, my uncle was an agent," he shrugged. "I didn't care. I would have signed on with the devil himself to get away."
"And once you were in America, and realized who you were working for?"
"I was glad. UNCLE was—was the good guys after all. I wanted—I didn't want to live my life in the sewer. I met Mr. Waverly, I got to know my teachers, I thought—I want to be like that."
"Didn't you ever consider coming clean about your record?"
"Not seriously. I assumed I'd just be deported. Why should anyone believe me? I knew how it looked. I thought—I hoped—it would never come out."
"You didn't feel that you owed UNCLE the truth?"
"I owed UNCLE the very best that was in me. I owed them... not to ever make them regret taking me on. I owed them becoming the best agent I was capable of being. I owed them my life. I did my utmost to live up to that."
"And at this point," Napoleon said, "I want an acknowledgment that Illya—that Agent Kuryakin did indeed live up to what he saw as his obligation to UNCLE. He's one of the best field agents we've ever produced. He and I—our record as a team is unequaled. And since he was retired from fieldwork his performance in the science section has been stellar. His annual job ratings are uniformly superior. I have personally seen Illya tortured, drugged—I have seen him at death's door and never once has he fallen short of the standard he set for himself. I want that on the record here and now."
Davenport inclined his head. "So noted."
"Not good enough. I want it from someone besides me. It is possible that I might be accused..." his lips twitched. "Of bias. I admit my bias. My own statement is not sufficient under the circumstances."
There was a long silence. Illya's throat was too tight for words. He could only sit there and wait while his fate was decided. Finally Davenport nodded. "Very well. I believe I speak for everyone when I confirm Agent Solo's statement. Your record is exemplary, Agent Kuryakin. It would have been preferable if we could have contacted Mr. Petrovich himself—his input would have been useful—but in view of his death all those years ago we have had to satisfy ourselves with... Agent Kuryakin. Are you well?"
Death. His uncle was dead. An enormous burden he hadn't been aware of carrying lifted off him and he was dizzy with it. If it weren't for Napoleon's hand holding his he would have floated off his seat.
"Illya." Napoleon's voice was sharp. "Illya. Answer me. Are you all right?"
"Yes," Illya said, surprised at the question. "Why do you ask?"
"Hmm." Napoleon was staring directly into his eyes. "All right. Did you understand what Mr. Davenport just told you?"
"My uncle is dead."
"Really dead? Or are they testing me?"
"He is really dead," Davenport confirmed.
"How wonderful," Illya murmured, thinking about that. "What happened to him?"
"His people never did believe his lack of complicity in your departure. When it became known that you had joined UNCLE they arrested him. He committed suicide in the car on the way to KGB headquarters."
"Evidently he had reason to believe he would not be handled with kid gloves."
"Oh no, they hated him. He had a lot of enemies. So I—in a way, I killed him."
"In a way you did," Davenport affirmed.
"And he's been dead all these years. All this time—he's been dead."
"And you thought I knew that?"
"We didn't know."
"Mr. Davenport," he looked earnestly at the other man. "I would have told Mr. Waverly everything, if I had known he was dead. He was the one I was afraid of. Just—just the thought of him undid me. I know you have no reason to believe me, but that's the truth." Davenport made a noncommittal sound. "What's going to happen to me now?"
"Your record will be adjusted to reflect your true background. The educational and security requirements for your entry position will be waived. The accusation of being a double agent is expunged."
"I don't understand what all that means. I'm sorry, I know I'm being stupid, but—"
"It means everything is all right," Napoleon said and Illya looked at him.
"Yes. All is forgiven, and you can go back to work as if none of it had happened."
"Yes," Davenport said and Illya smiled at him.
"Thank you. I—I promise you will never regret it."
"I believe you. As Agent Solo pointed out, your record speaks for itself. You are—you both are, free to leave."
"And I can come back to work tomorrow?"
"Not tomorrow," Napoleon said, smiling too. "We'll take a few days off first."
"You will let us know your destination and schedule, Agent Solo?"
"Yes sir. Thank you sir." He helped Illya stand up.
"I believe you can dispense with those," Davenport said, looking pointedly at the handcuffs.
"I don't have the key on me. I'll take care of it at home. Gentlemen..." he bowed slightly and started towards the door.
"Thank you," Illya said to Davenport, and to the rest of them. "Thank you so much."
"You are quite welcome. Good day."
Neither man spoke in the car. Napoleon's face had the distant, somewhat stern look that meant he was deep in thought and Illya hesitated to interrupt. So he looked out the window when he wasn't stealing glances at his partner, and when they went inside Napoleon's apartment and Napoleon locked up behind them, removed the handcuffs, they still hadn't said a word. It was Napoleon who broke the silence.
"I have to work," he said and Illya nodded. Napoleon must be chafing to get into the systems he had been locked out of the night before. He watched Napoleon settle in at his work station. Only his grunt of satisfaction betrayed his pleasure at being once again allowed into his files and Illya, feeling somewhat at loose ends, walked around the apartment. His apartment too, now.
It was a thought so big, and so strange it was hard to get his mind around it. He had moved? Just like that? UNCLE had found him his rent controlled studio apartment in West Greenwich Village when he first arrived in America, and he had not moved since then. It was a good neighborhood, and he liked it well enough, but the nature of his work, as well as his fierce need for privacy had prevented him from forming any emotional attachments there. Now, he lived here. Here, in his castle in the air. Curious, he poked around.
Napoleon's bedroom was very large—ample room for the extra dresser he had talked about so enthusiastically. The king sized bed stood against the back wall. A large window allowed sunlight to pour in, dappling the covers, sending dancing reflections across the floor. There were two walk in closets. The first one contained Napoleon's clothes, neatly organized—suits, slacks, jackets, tuxedos in plastic at the back, shoes carefully lined up on shelves, belts and ties on their own racks. So it would be the other. He looked in there. Boxes, some winter coats, a box containing gloves and hats—all, Napoleon had promised, to be put in storage to clear it out for Illya's use. He had to smile. His things would certainly rattle around in this space.
Crossing to the window, he looked out. This would be his view every morning when he woke up. His face felt hot. When he woke up in bed with Napoleon. How very strange. He had gone from routine, to fearing for his life and his future, to...
He wandered back into the hallway, passed through the living area—Napoleon still hard at work in what was no doubt intended to be a dining room but which he had converted into an office. 'We'll put our work stations together' Napoleon had also said and that would be nice, would be, in fact, like old times. They had shared motel rooms, apartments and offices so frequently throughout their field partnership that nothing would be new to either of them.
Illya moved on. The spare efficiency of the office was offset by the sunken living room—thickly carpeted, an enormous built in sofa facing a wood burning fireplace, expensive sound and video systems concealed behind an antique armoire. Napoleon liked his comforts, and had taught Illya that he liked them too. He turned to smile at Napoleon but Napoleon, scowling at whatever he was reading on the screen, was oblivious. Illya's smile faded. It wasn't that he wanted Napoleon to stop what he was doing and pay attention to him, it was... he shook his head, and looked into the kitchen.
Napoleon had felt free to dispense with his dining room because of this expansive space. Napoleon was a superb cook and Illya, who lived on what he heated up in the microwave or took home from restaurants, thought that he could now look forward to years of fine cuisine. If—he sat down at the table.
There it was, the word he had been trying to avoid. If. If Napoleon really wanted him there. If it hadn't been only a pity offer, a rescue maneuver. Maybe Napoleon had thought they would be more likely to let Illya stay in the country, if he and Napoleon—maybe Napoleon didn't want this arrangement at all. Napoleon was a good friend despite the late distance between them but it had, after all, been years since they had worked together, stayed together, been partners. In the time since then he had certainly shown no inclination to make time for Illya, to fit him into his life—seemingly absorbed in his work and in the endless parade of beautiful women he dated. There had not been the smallest indication that this was coming. He rose again, restless, and went back into the office area. Napoleon glanced up and smiled.
"My laptop is hooked up in the bedroom—feel free to use it if you want to check on anything."
"Sure." Napoleon bent his head over the keyboard again and Illya, who didn't feel like checking into anything, crossed the room and went onto the balcony. It overlooked Central Park, and Napoleon had fitted it out with two lounge chairs and a small glass topped table. Illya stood, leaning on the railing.
Despite the view, despite the beauty of the apartment he had just finished touring, depression welled up in him. Napoleon didn't really want this—this new arrangement. He had felt sorry for Illya, that was all, and responsible for him. He was probably even now trying to think of a way to tell him... to tell him... Illya didn't know how long he stood there, gazing sightlessly across the trees, and then the sliding glass door opened and Napoleon stepped out, stood beside him, shoulder to shoulder.
"Of course." He gathered up his courage. "Napoleon, I don't want you to think—I mean, I don't expect—I mean, it's all right. If you don't want to do this. It was so kind of you to help me. It was more than I had any right to expect, after all this time. You have your women, your work, your," he realized that he had no idea what Napoleon's life consisted of besides those two things. "Well, your life. You don't have to... just because you said... I'll be all right. They can't—they won't change their minds now, even if we're not—and if they do, my uncle is dead. I can face everything else."
"Is that what you were thinking out here by yourself all this time?" Napoleon's voice was very kind, and Illya looked up into his face. Napoleon's eyes were kind too, those brown eyes that always had warmed when they met his own. Probably that was all this was, kindness. But now Napoleon's eyes had crinkled with worry. "I'm sorry," he said, and Illya stared at him in surprise. Why should Napoleon be sorry? "Maybe you don't really want this. You can still tell me no, Illya."
"So you don't want to?"
"Of course I do. But not if you don't want to."
"Well, I don't want to if you don't want to." They looked at one another for a moment, then burst out laughing, Illya leaning on the railing, his head on his arms. They laughed together for a few minutes then Napoleon put his arm around Illya's shoulder.
"I want to."
"I want to too." Napoleon kissed him at that, full on the mouth and Illya chuckled against him.
"We're right out in public."
"Not really. Birds can see us, I suppose." He kissed Illya some more, turning him, gathering him into an embrace. When the kiss was finished Illya tucked his head into the crook of Napoleon's shoulder and sighed with contentment.
"I'm so happy, Napoleon."
"Are you? Are you really?"
"Yes. And you?"
"I've never been this happy. I thought," Napoleon drew back. "I used to think that the way I felt about you was a weakness. I had not thought of myself as a man with any weaknesses, and then there you were. My soft spot, the chink in my armor, my vulnerability. I couldn't even hide it. It worried me, and I didn't know how to feel about it. So in my arrogance I just—cut it off."
"Now, I see that I was wrong."
"That's not something you say very often."
"It's not something that happens very often." His lips twitched as he said it, and Illya poked him.
"You are arrogant. You're right about that."
"I have a feeling I've found the cure. It's not likely you'll let me get away with it."
"I don't know, Napoleon. I think you're wonderful. I may not be good for you at all."
"I doubt that."
"So you don't think I'm a weakness now? Is that what you were wrong about?" The warmth of Napoleon's body against his was making it hard to keep track of the conversation.
"You are my strength." He held Illya closer. "I can rely on you absolutely. On your integrity, your stubbornness, your..."
"I have your back," Illya said, and Napoleon nodded.
"Yes. As I have yours."
"We are both stronger, for being together. Just like in the old days."
"Just like that," Illya agreed, and when Napoleon smiled at him he put his face up for a kiss, and Napoleon obliged. They kissed for a while longer, out there on the balcony before going back inside, arms around each other, Illya's head still on Napoleon's shoulder.
Napoleon undressed him, and then Illya reciprocated. Naked, they walked into the bathroom and stood together under the steaming hot shower spray. They washed one another, taking their time, enjoying the familiar yet strange feel of their bodies pressed together, kissing under the pouring water.
"I would have stood against your uncle for you, if I'd been there," Napoleon said into Illya's wet hair, and Illya nodded.
"I know. That's why I came to you. I knew you'd never just sit by and watch them take me. I thought—I thought you'd be sorry, if you heard I'd killed myself because I was in trouble, without going to you first."
"I would have been more than sorry. It would have destroyed me. I'd have lived the rest of my life with regrets—bitter regrets, that I had let our friendship fade away so that when your back was against the wall you felt you had nowhere to turn. Always come to me, Illya. I am always—always, on your side."
"And I am on yours."
"Yes." He turned off the water and they stepped out, dried off. They went into the bedroom, and into the big bed. Their lovemaking was slow, and very sweet, and when it was over they lay in one another's arms. Napoleon stroked Illya's hair off his face, Illya kissed his fingers and then, each guarding the other's back, each holding the other's heart, they slept.