The Unexpected Talents Affair
A first draft of this story (and not the version I intended) appeared in one of the "File Forty" zines a few years back. This is yet another take.
A final "ding" and Illya Kuryakin rolled the paper out of the typewriter, wishing for the umpteenth time he had never learned how to type. He had been composing so steadily and with such single-minded concentration he had almost lost track of time. Almost. Writing had never come easily to him, words elusive or fraught with danger as if he were sweating blood or breaking under interrogation. He checked his watch. Only seven-thirty, not so late, and he had made such progress.
This report, only a few pages long, was much shorter than the three others lined up on Napoleon Solo's desk. Maybe he was running out of steam, but he also couldn't recall the months-old mission too well and raced through the particulars, glossing over inconvenient details—the ruin of dowager marchioness' prized rose garden for one. How she had raged when she assessed the damage to her irreplaceable roses, as old as her husband's 18th century estate (and quite possibly as old as she), the once lovely bushes trampled then burned past recognition.
Illya glanced at Solo's empty chair and sighed. He should be back by now. He promised he'd be back by seven. Who the hell made a date for four in the afternoon? And on a Tuesday? That was the excuse anyway. Not that Napoleon had provided much help when he had been around, dancing restlessly about the office and acting as if report writing was something Illya had invented just to cramp his social calendar.
He started to read the report he had just written, untitled for now, and clapped a hand to his mouth. He almost laughed. Oh, my. One of the problems with being gifted in languages is you didn't always notice when you lapsed into one of them. How had he drifted into French midway through the last page? French with no diacritical marks; how had he just ignored their absence? He had thought he was doing so well. He had thought he was banging them out. In English!
The first part of the report was in English, stilted English, certainly lacking Napoleon's flair for dramatic understatement. Napoleon knew when to cut to the chase, how to add just the right note—a telling detail or two that both explained and concealed, that satisfied but did not give too much away. Not that Napoleon wrote reports anymore, not that he didn't shirk this duty from the day he discovered Illya could type.
The part in English was boring. Alexander Waverly did not like boring and had reprimanded both Napoleon and Illya a few months ago, droning on like an exasperated college English professor. "Gentlemen," he had said, his bushy eyebrows raised to the ceiling, "there's no cause and effect here." He had tapped his pipe on the pages of the report, like a long-suffering saint, as he read a few passages aloud. "'A car was damaged.' 'A chase ensued.' 'The scientist went missing along with a girl and the formula only to be discovered again later on.'" Waverly scowled. "Have you ever heard of the active voice? Do you two actually do anything or are you merely witnesses to events? That ensue? "Whilst," he glanced down at the report, reading, "'decisions were made.'"
While attentive to Waverly's lecture, Napoleon still didn't bother with the reports, though usually he helped more than he had today. He would dictate a sentence, add a line of dialogue, or insert a decorative adjective, an apt verb. Most likely he would have insisted Illya mention the rose garden's demise, both celebrating and mourning its beauty, making it sound like a tragic, not to mention heroic sacrifice to the greater good. He certainly would have said more than: "We ran through hedges forming a maze on an estate called 'Devon Park' pursued by Thrush adversaries and we found it expedient to set one of the gardens in said maze ablaze as a diversion." Napoleon would have found a way to make this unfortunate turn of events resonate with purpose.
Today he just seemed distracted and let Illya type away, as if Waverly's months-ago lecture had gone in one ear and out, with the arrival of a comely new receptionist—another Wanda.
Where was Napoleon?
Illya rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter and started to translate the French. He tried to make his prose pithy or at least understandable. Actually the French part, the last page, seemed somewhat more readable than the rest of it. He had, after all, studied the humanities at the Sorbonne.
Again he became lost in thought. He hardly looked up as the door whooshed opened.
"I'm sorry I'm late. Aren't you done?" Napoleon asked. He seemed out of breath.
"Almost," Illya said. "I need a title."
"Which one are you working on?" Napoleon sat at his desk and started initialing the reports without reading them, placing the papers in separate gray file folders. "How about 'The Roses Are Red Affair?'"
Illya nodded, muttering, "Violets are blue," and yanked the almost blank sheet of paper from the typewriter, replacing it with the first page. He didn't ask how Napoleon even knew on which report he was working. Maybe he had skimmed the others with a quick, practiced eye. The title made just enough sense so that Illya typed a variation on it, "La Vie En Rose Affair" then backspaced and underlined it. Since Napoleon hadn't bothered to read his other masterpieces, he decided to leave the French page in the "Rose" report. It would annoy Waverly, but since Napoleon was taking full credit for them, the old man's ire would be directed at him, not Illya. It served Napoleon right.
"I'm hungry," Napoleon said as Illya unrolled the final report with a flourish. "Do you want to go out to eat?"
Illya stood and set the final report on Napoleon's desk, his mouth twitching in amusement at his prank. "Didn't you just eat?"
"No, I uh, no." Napoleon had the good grace to look embarrassed as he initialed the title page of the "Rose" report, placing it in another folder and setting it on the top of the pile at the edge of his tidy desk.
"I guess I could eat," Illya admitted, as if bestowing a favor.
Napoleon rolled his eyes at the hesitant response. "I owe you one. I'll even buy. What do you have a taste for?"
"French," Illya said and tried to keep from smiling. "How about Bistro 44. It's close."
"That too. But you owe me, not one, but four."
"Point taken. But none of this wine with every course."
Illya nodded, feeling a sly magnanimity. He returned to his desk and shrugged on the jacket draped over the back of his chair. He straightened his tie and ran his fingers through his hair. Then he remembered. "Oh, wait. You need to read something before we go. It's about Prescott and Mansfield. I debriefed them yesterday and then called Dr. Weil in to talk to them." He picked up a red file from his desk.
"Weil?" Napoleon suppressed a shudder. "Prescott and who? Sounds like a law firm."
"Prescott and Mansfield. You know who they are. They requested transfers."
"Fine. I'll approve them." Napoleon stood up. "Let's go. We can talk about it at dinner. I'm really hungry and we've been working on this forever."
"We've been working on this?" Illya lifted his chin and glared.
Napoleon smiled. "Look, I'm taking you to dinner. To make amends. And you can order all the damn wine you want."
"I don't want to talk about it at dinner. It's not dinner conversation." Illya pointed his index finger at the red file still on his desk.
"Then tomorrow. We'll talk about it then. Okay? I promise."
But the next day Napoleon flew to Geneva and Illya to Amsterdam.
****Two weeks later****
Napoleon Solo stumbled into a featureless room that looked like a miniature handball court. He grimaced as an over-zealous Thrush henchman shoved him with the barrel of an automatic and then he straightened, taking a moment to brush off his no longer impeccable suit jacket.
The hum of the overhead fluorescent lights buzzed an ominous drone as Napoleon surveyed the little room. Masking his disappointment behind an inanely cheerful grin, he glanced at his partner, similarly guarded, hands already cuffed behind his back. He could read the disappointment behind the bland, blue-eyed expression as they nodded a cool greeting, acknowledging their mutual failure both to their mission and to each other. They were trained to greet defeat with an almost suicidal sangfroid, but Napoleon caught the briefest roll of Illya's eyes and smiled indulgently. Typical of Illya to be angry with him—hadn't his friend hadn't gotten himself into exactly the same predicament? Captured again, they would escape again—Napoleon felt confident. He waited to be cuffed like his partner.
Instead, the man holding a Walther to Illya's head grinned, a curious, unreadable glint in his eyes. His complexion was as pale and mottled as a mushroom, in stark contrast to his shiny black suit. He looked as if he lived under a log or had not been outside in a long time. He extended his hand, allowing Solo's guards to cover Kuryakin.
"Mr. Solo, I am Lionel Lazar. Perhaps you have heard of me." He sounded eager, like an unpopular kid in high school hoping the star quarterback remembered him.
Napoleon shook his head but met the man's manic eyes. He smiled as if he were indeed that forgetful quarterback, not that he had even tried out for the team in high school. "No, I can't say that I have, but it is a pleasure." He shook hands almost warmly and heard Illya sigh, the exasperation no longer impalpable. He didn't need to look at Illya; he could feel the angry heat of his glare.
Lazar's brow furled with confusion. "Mr. Kuryakin has heard of me," he said in a piqued tone.
Napoleon shrugged and met Illya's eyes, searching for an explanation. Sure enough, his friend was glaring, his expression almost throwing off the sparks of displeasure Napoleon had sensed a moment ago. "Lionel, um, Lazar did you say? Doesn't ring a bell." He moved cautiously to stand by his partner, reaching out briefly to touch his shoulder, a familiar gesture of solidarity. Illya shied from the contact and Napoleon grasped his left biceps and felt a tremor pass through his friend's slight body, as if his touch scalded. Illya almost wrenched himself away this time. "Oh, he's mad," Napoleon thought, amused. Then he reevaluated. "No, he's scared. I'm missing something." He squeezed Illya's arm almost aggressively, no longer comforting, now asserting his authority.
"You never read it, did you?" Illya hissed.
"What?" Napoleon shrugged trying to understand.
"The report. You ignored it. You don't read them anymore."
"Not if I can help it," Napoleon replied. "Ignorance is bliss."
"No doubt you are happy then," Illya rejoined. He strove to school his expression to blandness again and Napoleon wondered at the internal struggle. His partner was usually much more adept at hiding his emotions. Most people found him cold.
"Why don't you enlighten me before I bliss out completely?" Napoleon met Illya's eyes, urging calm. "Hey, my friend, sometimes I try. But these reports drift into French, apropos of nothing."
"Shush, you two," Lazar interrupted, waving his gun for attention. Solo and Kuryakin continued their conversation with barely a cursory glance at the aggravating Thrush agent.
"Prescott and Mansfield," Illya said. "Does that ring a bell?"
Napoleon pursed his mobile lips and tapped them with his right index finger, ignoring the aim of the automatics and Lazar's clownish frown. "The debutantes?" he finally asked, remembering his own flippant nickname for the Section Two partners. He remembered all at once. Hardly opposites, Bennett Emory Prescott and George Whitiker Mansfield were both Ivy League-educated society boys, both heirs to substantial fortunes, both raised on New York's Upper East side, both devilishly handsome, both...hell, it was difficult to tell them apart.
"Do you know what happened to them? I tried to tell you."
Napoleon shrugged. He knew the two agents were no longer partners, but partnerships broke up as often as marriages did in the real world, and sometimes for similar reasons. Incompatibility. Irreconcilable differences. Alienation of affection—partners sometimes found other partners.
Prescott now worked out of the Paris office and Mansfield out of Los Angeles, or was it the other way around? Napoleon could not recall the details of their recent transfers though he had signed them. They were not top-level agents, neither particularly ambitious, lulled into indolence by their private fortunes. They had been friends, often partners were not, and something happened between them. Napoleon could hardly be bothered to keep track of all his charges. He had Illya to do his dirty work, allowing him the time to ponder and pursue both the important aspects of his job and the frivolous. "You want to tell me?" Napoleon asked.
"I debriefed them after they spent a couple of days with Mr. Lazar. I tried to tell you. They weren't the same," Illya said ominously.
"Oh, but Illya, they were exactly the same," Napoleon countered. "Could you really tell them apart?"
"I mean afterwards." Illya smiled slightly. "They were still the same but changed."
"Enough chatter from you two," Lazar commanded, sounding miffed at being ignored. "I'm not going to ask again." He approached the two U.N.C.L.E. agents, brandishing his gun to urge silence. "I practiced on Prescott and Mansfield. And now I have you two, U.N.C.L.E.'s finest I am told. You've been partners for, is it four years?"
Napoleon looked to Illya for confirmation. "Is it four already? Time flies so when you're having fun."
"Times flies whether you're having fun or not," Illya corrected and again pulled away from his friend, his body language creating as much distance as possible in the small room.
Lazar observed them ironically, his thin lips curling in the slightest of smiles. "I've heard you are close. How close are you?"
Napoleon watched Illya blanch as the question was asked. He stood protectively in front of his partner, not certain from what he was shielding him. They had endured taunts about their relationship before. This ploy was nothing original or surprising. Waverly even offered a pointed comment or two at times about their mutual "infatuation" as he had termed it on one memorable occasion.
They had both been called on the carpet for disobeying orders. Each had abandoned their mission to see to the other's safety. Each missed flight connections and yet, to Waverly's intense displeasure, each had prevailed—the mission a success, not despite their actions, but because of them. Napoleon recalled Illya listening respectfully as Waverly had chastised them, his blond head bowed, eyes doleful, hands folded on the conference table like an obedient schoolboy. When Waverly paused to fiddle with his pipe, Illya had raised his downcast eyes seductively at Napoleon, pursed his lips and blew him a kiss. The gesture proved so unexpected, Napoleon had burst out laughing. Waverly dismissed Illya and lit into Napoleon for a good forty-five minutes, questioning his commitment.
It happened again recently. Waverly wondered cryptically and with withering sarcasm why he had thought to conclude a report in French. "I read them. Don't you think that I do?" Waverly had asked. "Or don't you read them? Which is it? Have you charmed your Russian friend into doing all of your work? Don't tell me Mr. Kuryakin writes all of these loathsome reports?"
And so he hadn't told him. The old man already knew.
"I asked you a question," Lazar said.
"Are you asking if we're lovers?" Napoleon grinned at the concept. He turned to Illya who had backed up a step. "Are we, Illya?"
Illya shot him a warning glance, letting him know, once again, he did not understand the nature of this capture. But his answer was coolly imprecise. "I do not kiss and tell."
Lazar approached Illya and ran a finger casually over his lips. "I have heard you don't kiss much. Maybe you just don't have anything to tell," he said. "And such a beautiful mouth. Such a waste." He pinched Illya's lower lip.
"Don't touch me," Illya warned, snapping his head back and clearly in no position to issue such a directive.
Napoleon moved between them, pushing his friend away from Lazar. Illya backed up another step and turned away from him too.
"How about your partner? Would you prefer his touching you?" Lazar asked Illya.
Illya lifted his chin and Napoleon watched him summon his icy control, blanking his eyes and slackening his mouth. "I would prefer him to you, yes."
Lazar chuckled. "Kiss him then. Show me."
"I said I would prefer him to you," Illya said, his voice low and menacing. "That's all."
Lazar released the safety catch on his gun and held it to Illya's head. "I don't believe you can be choosy at the moment."
Napoleon snorted with laughter and pulled Illya into a bear hug. He kissed him, Russian style, first on one cheek then the other, then the mouth. But the kiss was chaste—fraternal—and succeeded in placing his body between the Walther and his friend. Illya stared up at him, eyes amused and anxious at once.
"Oh, Mr. Solo, I'm sure you can do better than that," Lazar said. "Don't you have a reputation to maintain?"
"What exactly is the point here?" Napoleon asked. He squeezed Illya's shoulder. Once again his friend shied away from his touch.
"I'd like to bring you two closer together," Lazar replied.
"While I appreciate the sentiment," Napoleon said, "it's really not necessary. We are already close."
"Kiss him. Or I'll shoot you. I'll shoot both of you."
Napoleon held tight to his nonchalant act. "Well, if you put it that way." He then embraced Illya and pressed his lips to his mouth, French style this time. Hadn't Illya done postgraduate work at the Sorbonne? Illya opened his mouth to his friend's searching tongue, returning the kiss, and then stepped away.
Lazar smiled at them. "Feel good?" he asked. "Or is it just business as usual?"
Napoleon pretended to deliberate, stalling for time. "As kisses go," he finally said, "it felt fairly normal. Maybe a little rushed but—"
"Oh, shut up, " Illya snapped, backing away again, as if there were somewhere to hide in the brightly lit room.
"Why the temper, Mr. Kuryakin?" Lazar asked. He walked slowly toward him, staring intently into his eyes. "You can't decide how to play this, can you? You with all that pretty, girlish hair. You don't know what you want?"
Illya pinned Lazar with a glare and then turned toward Napoleon. Their eyes locked and Illya ducked his head, as if acknowledging he had skirted this edge before, danced along the flames of their too-close friendship. "I have always known what I want," he said. "This will have nothing to do with what I want. This is about you, Mr. Lazar, not me, not Napoleon. It will not affect us."
Napoleon winced as he heard the sound of the slap that spun his partner into the wall. Lazar pulled Illya forward by his hair and slapped him again. "I will make this quite personal."
"Personal perhaps," Illya replied, lifting his head as if inviting another slap, "just ineffectual."
Lazar struggled to regain his equilibrium. "I think you just want it," he taunted.
"Maybe," Illya replied.
Napoleon sincerely wished he could follow this conversation, make some sense of it. He only knew Illya was trying to provoke, and succeeding admirably if the slaps were any indication. No question Lazar was a bit off the beam, to use a quaint Waverly expression—probably a certified pervert, so many of their Thrush captors were. Lazar didn't possess the polish of a high-level Thrush operative and Napoleon knew the competition for top slots in the organization to be literally cutthroat.
But as to Illya's "Maybe," Napoleon had never been sure of his friend's intentions. Illya flirted at times, much more than the sarcastically blown kiss in the conference room. He never really followed through, always just a "maybe." Catch me if you can? Napoleon never pressed it. He required clearer signals, especially from his closest friend.
"So, you know the game, Mr. Kuryakin," Lazar said. "And only maybe you want to play it. Do you want to give or receive? What is your usual role?"
"I do not play roles," Illya replied.
Another slap. "Don't be coy. You know what I want."
"Yes." Illya's voice had turned quiet, no longer self-assured, no longer provoking. He looked at his friend almost beseechingly and shrugged. "I will—" he paused. "I would not be able to—" He paused again. "Yes," he repeated. "I'll show you."
"You'll show us what?" Napoleon asked uneasily, damning himself for his failure to read the Prescott/Mansfield debriefing. But Illya's reports were so often long and ponderous, filled with the most stultifying spy fiction he had ever read.
Illya dropped to his knees and affixed Napoleon with an unreadable gaze, a flush of embarrassment staining his cheeks.
"Your partner, in his own suddenly inarticulate manner, is asking if he can blow you. And he has," Lazar consulted his watch, "exactly fifteen minutes to make you come."
Napoleon laughed, despite himself. "That's the best offer I've had all day," he said, the attitude of nonchalance wearing thin. Illya stared up at him from his kneeling position, eyes as grim and attentive as if he were dismantling a bomb.
"Napoleon," he said in a familiarly sullen tone. "I can't unzip you with my mouth. Just do it. Please."
"Don't tempt me," Napoleon replied, briefly entranced with the image of Illya attempting to unzip him with his teeth. He reached for his fly, feeling as if he were dreaming, the dream familiar and surreal at once.
Illya stared up at Napoleon, smiling almost impishly. "Just pretend I am one of your blondes," he instructed.
"I don't expect this of my blondes," Napoleon replied.
Illya looked startled. "You don't?" he asked. "No wonder you are so popular with the ladies."
"This is pretty much all the fantasy I need," he said, as Illya took his already hardening cock in his mouth and pressed forward, taking him deep in his throat. It had been Napoleon's experience that men gave better blowjobs, not nearly as tentative as their feminine counterparts. Men instinctively knew what other men wanted and Illya proved the point, his tongue stroking the sensitive underside of Napoleon's penis, obviously aware which end was up. Napoleon pressed his partner's head to his turgid shaft and bucked his hips with unbridled enthusiasm, guiltily growing more excited when he heard Illya choke and murmur a strangled protest.
He hardly needed half of the allotted fifteen minutes. It had been so long since he'd been serviced by a man, and this was not just any man, but his remote and unattainable friend. Illya scrunched his eyes shut as Napoleon exploded into his mouth and tried to turn his head away, grimacing in disgust. Napoleon wound his fingers in Illya's silky, thick hair holding him in position as he came and came, heedless to his partner's obvious dismay, reasoning quickness made more sense than finesse.
Lazar erupted in derisive laughter. "He even swallows," he said.
Illya leaned back on his heels and stared up at Lazar, eyes composed. He spat at him, the semen and saliva hitting Lazar squarely in the face. "Actually, I don't," he said. He bent his head as if expecting the blows and was not disappointed. Lazar slapped him with his gun, connecting hard with his right cheekbone and kicked him as he collapsed to the floor. Napoleon pushed Lazar away from his prone partner and bent over his battered body, stroking his hair now matted with blood. He did not bother looking up; he knew all guns were aimed at him.
"Are you all right, Illya?" Napoleon asked.
Illya nodded but said nothing, curling his body into itself. For just a moment, no more, he seemed to lose consciousness.
"That was just uncalled for," Lazar said.
"You made an observation," Napoleon replied. "A false one as it turns out. I think my friend was only trying to correct your erroneous impression. Weren't you, Illya?"
Illya attempted to shrug, moaning a garbled response.
"Simply uncalled for," Lazar repeated, dabbing his face with a white handkerchief. "Take Mr. Solo away."
The guards pulled them apart, and one of them marched Napoleon down a long, damp corridor. Illya remained behind on the floor, motionless and coiled in a fetal position.
Napoleon barely had time to acclimate himself to the cell—battleship gray, small, one cot, a stainless steel toilet and sink, no windows—like hotel rooms, these cells came to look depressingly the same. The door swung open and another guard tossed Illya into it. Catching his friend before his head collided with the floor, he lifted Illya onto the narrow cot that hung from thick chains against the wall. Illya moaned, his face a watercolor of black, blue and yellow bruises. He licked his parched lips and shook his head at Napoleon, rolling his big blue eyes. "I won't tell if you don't tell," he said, repeating a long-standing catchphrase between them that covered a multitude of sins.
"My compliments, Illya," Napoleon replied. "Your myriad skills continue to amaze me. Had I known you were so good, I wouldn't have wasted so much time chasing girls."
Illya winced at the words or perhaps at his pain, and buried his head in the comfort of Napoleon's shoulder.
After a time, Napoleon extricated himself from the awkward contact and wet a hand towel that hung from a bar next to the stainless steel sink. "You're a mess," Napoleon chided as he pressed the warm fabric to Illya's forehead. "How many times have I told you to keep your mouth shut?"
The wide blue eyes blinked and then Illya looked away, as if unable to meet Napoleon's amused stare.
Cupping his friend's square chin, Napoleon forced their eyes to connect. "Perhaps, ah, not the best choice of words. To be honest, I wish you hadn't kept your mouth shut for so long."
"Speaking of which," Illya said, "do you always come so quickly? How do you maintain your reputation as the last of the..."
"Maybe," Napoleon interrupted, "I haven't ever had it so good. Have you been practicing in your off hours? Here I thought you just hung out in the lab. I should probably review some of the diagrams in those physics manuals of yours."
Illya blushed, adding a new hue to his already colorful face. He turned away, frowning. "Oh, Napoleon," he said, suddenly serious, "we have to get out of here."
"Your grasp of the obvious overwhelms me." Napoleon clutched Illya's shoulder and squeezed briefly. "Don't worry your pretty little head. I'll come through for you. Again."
"Very funny," Illya grumbled. "You really don't understand."
"Well, what do you suggest I do?" Napoleon asked. "Here, let me try." He stood up and walked to the door of the cell. "Guard, oh guard," he called. "My friend would like to leave. Would you let us out?"
"Fuck off, Solo," a disembodied voice replied.
Napoleon canted his eyebrows at Illya. "I guess we'll have to resort to Plan B."
Illya reclined on the cot, facing the wall and hiding his reaction, but clearly not amused. Napoleon noticed his cuffed wrists were already raw, scraped and bleeding. Why was only Illya cuffed? Was he considered the more dangerous? Since when! He almost felt affronted. "You're not taking a nap?" Napoleon said, concentrating instead on something he could control. He didn't want Illya to withdraw.
"No, Napoleon. But you have to be serious. This isn't a joke."
Napoleon sat down beside his partner again, pushing his hip against him to maintain contact. "Don't go all Slavic gloomy on me. I'm well aware we have to escape. But unless you have any ideas, we have to bide our time."
"Do you know what's going to happen?" Illya snapped. "Do you? I know you didn't have much respect for Mansfield and Prescott. You didn't even know who they were. Maybe our partnership is stronger but still there are limits to everything. You never read the report."
"May I remind you, we haven't been at headquarters for more than a few hours these past two weeks. So, I never read it. So what?" He waggled a scolding finger at his friend. "He can kill us, Illya. Beyond that, there are no limits. What could he do to us to threaten our friendship?"
"Four things," Illya replied pedantically. "He'll rape me while you watch. He'll rape you while I watch. He'll force me to rape you. He'll force you to rape me. One or all of those scenarios is what's going to happen if we stay."
"Is that what happened to Mansfield and Prescott?"
"Yes," Illya said, addressing the wall.
"Good grief," Napoleon said in such a nonchalant tone Illya turned to stare at him. "In the future, let me know when your reports contain a prurient content. Usually they're so dull, but I will find the time if you'll direct me to your smutty ones. And while you're at it, let me know which ones are in French, too, just as a courtesy."
Illya turned back to the wall. "It's not funny, Napoleon."
"Oh, calm down—am I laughing?" he asked. "Look, we've both been trained to deal with rape and its aftermath. Which of the particular scenarios you described is going to make you hate me? I wasn't aware our friendship was so fragile." Napoleon's hand sought his partner's shoulder again, feeling the tension. He massaged the soft neck, stroking lightly, then ran his hand down Illya's arm, his heart constricting with tenderness and understanding. "What would ever change?" he asked, his voice low and reassuring.
Illya and he often had their most soul-searching conversations when locked together in desperately close quarters: boredom, fear and sometimes pain releasing their subconscious's as effectively as truth serum. Once they had spent a cold evening remembering, with unexpected sentimentality, the doting grandmothers who had raised them. Another time, Napoleon, high as a kite, had recited verses from "The Ballad of Reading Goal" "Something was dead in each of us, And what was dead was Hope." Illya countered with a quote from Lewis Carroll: "We are but older children dear, who fret to find our bedtime near." urging sleep. He then objected to the theme Oscar Wilde's depressing poem. "We don't kill the one we love," Illya said. "We simply don't."
Forced confinement gave them an excuse to talk and they found they shared a great deal in common.
"Was it really all that bad?" Napoleon asked now. "Am I really so repulsive to you? Was that the worst thing you could ever imagine happening?"
Illya just shrugged, his face still angled toward the wall.
"Look at me!" Napoleon paused between each word. "Don't hide from me. What's done is done, isn't that what you tell me? Things are what they are." Napoleon did his best to imitate his friend's accent and intonation.
Finally, Illya met Napoleon's eyes, twisting on the narrow cot and flushing as he struggled to hold the gaze. "I just," he began, "it's just—I—" he shook his head. "I guess that one time. Maybe if—" His eyes slid back to the wall.
That one time? Maybe if? Napoleon just smiled and understood.
In the early months of their affiliation, not yet a partnership, Illya had been almost meek as if tongue-tied from hero-worship, or so Napoleon thought. He sought the approval of his only friend and produced, working tirelessly and demonstrating a shy—not to mention sly—competence. He looked to Napoleon for direction and never questioned his orders.
That changed soon enough.
While acquiescing to Napoleon's schemes, as if accustomed to the obedience of another service, he soon unveiled a sarcastic wit, his tongue, no longer tied but so sharp it could cut steel. Napoleon had enjoyed Illya's unquestioning loyalty while it lasted, but did not mourn the change, as it shifted into something more complicated. He liked the less compliant side too, the glint of humor and not just that. Hadn't he always encouraged his friend's intelligence? Hadn't he asked for input? Until? Hadn't he also noticed his beauty?—the occasional ambiguity of their exchanged glances, suddenly smoldering, a blinding flash as if they understood—what? The spark between them ignited at times and then extinguished before it became a flame.
Napoleon recalled the French Riviera, where Illya had seemed so flirtatious, his asides about blonds so obvious, so full of challenge. There, Illya had dialed up his wicked sense of humor to another level, no longer quite ambiguous. No, that time he had carried the teasing too far. They ended up fighting in their hotel room, verbally then physically.
They had not been alone; perhaps that stopped them from merely pounding the hell out of each other. Some irritating schoolteacher had separated them before any real damage occurred. But later at dinner, Illya, perhaps emboldened by the two bottles of wine they shared, continued to flirt. Napoleon had finally called him on it, tried to kiss him when they were back in their room. He trapped Illya's face in his hands. They did kiss, once, a scorching room-spinning kiss, before Illya pushed him away, connecting hard with an upper cut to the admittedly inviting target of Napoleon's jutting chin. They fought again, this time without a referee.
They had never fought before, even in the gym. No, in the gym they practiced with trainers, never with each other. In real life they found themselves to be equally matched. Why did they fight? Napoleon had never been sure. He hadn't misread the signs—he remained sure to this day.
Waverly never said much about the charges for the damage to the hotel room or their matching black eyes. Boys will be boys after all.
But, was that the end of it? In his mind's eye Napoleon saw Illya patting his hair. "I'll listen to your stories...anytime." What was that all about? So obvious, but even afterwards Illya remained remote and did not stay around to listen to much of anything. Even when Napoleon made his own overtures, a lingering caress of Illya's cheek or an inappropriate expression of jealousy, it was as if his friend just couldn't decide.
Still, Napoleon knew something existed between them, a spark that never ignited.
And now? He kept hearing Illya's "Maybe." It had always been a maybe, an unspoken wish both of them harbored. Now the deed had been done. He refused to let Illya withdraw, to pretend it had never crossed his mind. Things were what they were.
"So tell me how disgusted you are. Tell me." Sometimes it was best to just goad Illya into anger. "Look me in the eyes and tell me with a straight face you never considered doing it before."
Illya shuddered, trying to wriggle out of Napoleon's grasp. Cuffed and prone, he was hardly a match for the American's strength. Napoleon pressed him easily into the thin mattress on the cot and wound his hands into Illya's hair, longer hair now, easier to control than the French Rivera cut. Who would have imagined it was short then?
"A straight face?" Illya asked, ceasing his struggles.
Napoleon rubbed Illya's head, fingertips massaging his temples with a languid, circular motion and tried not to laugh. "Yes, a straight face. Maybe you could tell me why we never did this before."
"I'm sorry." Illya's voice was a monotone.
"For what though?"
"I—" Illya tried to turn his face away but Napoleon prevented it. "I—" He met Napoleon's eyes and it was an effort not to flinch from the blue-eyed gaze. "Lovers come and go," Illya said, "especially your lovers. I didn't want to lose your friendship. So I made a choice."
"To just be my friend?" Napoleon glanced away.
"Now? I don't know what's going to happen. You should read your reports."
"Why? You are an atrocious writer." Napoleon continued to rub his friend's head until he seemed boneless.
"I'm trying to improve. My head hurts."
"You don't have a concussion, do you? Let me see your pupils." Napoleon flipped him on his back, fingers still wound in his hair and peered into his eyes.
"Stop it," Illya said. "I'm fine. I don't want to lie on my arms. And you don't write anything anymore. It's all me. Atrocious! Why don't you help me?" Illya let out an injured sniff.
Napoleon pulled him to a sitting position. "Why are you the only one cuffed?" he asked, still a little miffed by the inequity. "Did this happen to the debutantes too?"
"Yes. If you bothered to read you would know. Is reading so daunting? Even my atrocious prose?" Then he looked beyond Napoleon toward the door.
The three Thrush guards appeared, one pushing a cart, the other two poised behind him, aiming their automatics. "Dinnertime!" the one with the cart said, opening the door. He wheeled in a stainless steel cart with a sorry offering—one cup of tea and one bowl of what appeared to be some sort of stew—both steaming uninvitingly.
Napoleon smiled, sincerely amused. He held up two fingers that meant just that—two—no peace or victory sign intended. "You forgot one of the entrees," he said. "My friend can have this slop. I'll have the steak, medium rare, a baked potato with sour cream and the house salad. Oh, and a bottle of your best Bordeaux."
The guard rolled his eyes and inclined his head toward Illya. "He can't feed himself anyway," he replied and quickly backed out of the cell, as if he had just fed the lions at the zoo.
Napoleon smiled again. "They know you, I.K.," he said. "You'd cut my heart out for this, wouldn't you? Remember that story you told me about your grandma and the Lindt bars?"
"I'm not hungry," Illya said, eyeing the tray with a strange light in his eyes. "And I know how to share," he added petulantly.
"Can you lighten up a little?" Napoleon scooped a spoonful of the grayish colored stew and held it to Illya's mouth. "Choo, choo, choo," he encouraged. Illya turned his head away from the spoon and Napoleon brought it to his own mouth and swallowed. "Mmm, it's delicious. Now let's try again." Another spoonful. "Choo, choo." Illya rolled his eyes and shook his head, glaring a little now. "Maybe 'choo choo' is not what they say in Russia," Napoleon said after tackling the second spoonful of the dreadful stew.
"We had trains, still do," Illya grumbled. He accepted the next spoonful Napoleon offered and the next.
Napoleon continued feeding him, a little disconcerted by Illya's unrestrained appetite. He knew, of course, his partner loved to eat and surmised his gluttony had something to do with childhood deprivations, the story he had told him about the Lindt bars in a similar cell. And it was gluttony: nothing interfered with Illya's hunger and nothing satisfied it for long either. Still, he had lived in America for quite a few years, in the West for almost a decade. His meals were no longer uncertain and still Illya exhibited a perplexing desperation about food. It seldom mattered what he ate or where, just how much. "Do you want the tea?" Napoleon asked. "I don't drink tea. And, despite your earlier protests, you don't share." He banged the spoon into the empty bowl for emphasis.
"I said I know how to share. I didn't say I did share," Illya clarified but he lowered his eyes and looked a little chagrined.
"It's okay, Illya," Napoleon said, bringing the cup of tea to his partner's lips. "But you're still acting nuts. That stew was abominable and haven't you learned your lessons about eating food in Thrush prison cells?" Illya shook his head and leaned forward awkwardly to sip the tea. "And you're terrified of this Lazar guy. Hey, we're all afraid of things—it's a human condition after all. I don't like water too much and you're afraid of, let's see, dogs, heights, bats, parties, boats, decadence, ghosts, nuclear war, small talk, guillotines, abandonment, hunger, aggressive girls, sex—"
Illya leaned forward again, trying to slurp the tea and trying harder to stifle a smile. But he did smile, as Napoleon hoped he would, his body relaxing finally. "Napoleon," he said, eyes widened with feigned indignation, "isn't everyone afraid of guillotines and nuclear war?"
"Yes, Illya," Napoleon replied patiently, as if to a child. "Was it really so awful?"
"Fishing for compliments, are you?" Illya turned away from the teacup, his eyes sliding again toward the wall.
"Why don't you tell me what's bothering you now? Or, rather than playing our usual game of Twenty Questions, let me tell you." Napoleon hesitated, unsure how to proceed, a little put off by Illya's withdrawal, the smile of only a few moments ago an uncertain memory. "You, my little friend, are afraid of losing me." He pulled Illya's face toward his. "You've always been afraid of that and I think we should talk about it."
Illya met his eyes, staring, his mind obviously working furiously behind the unblinking gaze. His eyes narrowed. "And you, my somewhat bigger friend, are an insufferable egotist."
"All well and true," Napoleon replied. "It still doesn't change anything." Napoleon grimaced, wondering why he committed such an obvious tactical error. Why did he call Illya on his fears? Why didn't he admit his own first? Insufferable egotist—it had a certain ring to it. He reached for Illya's shoulder, spilling a little tea in the process. "I feel the same way, Illya. I don't want to lose you either. But I know I won't: you're not so sure. That's the difference."
"Thank you for the pep talk," Illya said, his voice brittle with sarcasm. "I'll keep it in mind when—"
The door clanged open interrupting Illya's thought. Again three guards, and again two of them held Thrush automatics poised and ready. The third, spoke almost nervously. "Mr. Lazar would like to see you."
Both Napoleon and Illya stood up.
"Just you, Blondie. I think he's taken a fancy to you. No offence, Mr. Solo," he added, without a touch of irony.
"None taken," Napoleon replied. "But if it's all the same to you, I'd like to accompany my friend. We're sort of a matched set."
"I noticed." The lead guard smirked. "And it is all the same to me. But I'm afraid Mr. Lazar prefers blonds."
"A common failing." Napoleon smiled charmingly. "Still, I'd like to—"
As the guards approached Illya, Napoleon blocked their way, pushing his friend behind him.
"Mr. Solo, this is not your show, in case you haven't noticed. You are our prisoner and you're not in charge here."
"You can't have him."
The lead guard looked confused for a moment, inclining his head toward the guns pointed at them. "Excuse me? You are being ridiculous."
"He's right, you know," Illya said. But he didn't move from behind Napoleon's sheltering bulk.
The guard stood aside and one of his cohorts slammed the barrel of his automatic into Napoleon's solar plexus, propelling him backwards into Illya who lost his balance and sat hard on the cot. Despite having the wind knocked out of him, Napoleon launched himself forward, trying to tackle the first guard. The other two raised their automatics and aimed.
"Stop, all of you," Illya shouted, struggling to a standing position. "I'm coming," he continued in a calmer tone. He hopped over Napoleon's prone body and shook his head as he glanced down at him. "Napoleon, you are the mad one. Not me."
Napoleon just shrugged and curled into himself trying to regain his breath.
Illya turned and met Napoleon's eyes with unflinching gravity. "You know, it wasn't so bad," he said, smiling his crooked half-smile.
The door to the cell swung shut with metallic finality, the lock clicking in place. Napoleon watched his partner led away, as if to the gallows, and felt his own stomach lurch with anxiety, the pain of the blow receding. Always Illya, or at least it seemed so—his partner was so much tougher than he seemed—almost unbreakable, despite his fragile appearance.
A little over an hour later, Solo joined Lazar and Kuryakin in some sort of a conference room, rather old-fashioned and a little shabby. The chairs needed reupholstering, the large mahogany table was scratched and dusty. Dried leaves surrounded a large, almost dead Ficus tree in one corner. Napoleon surmised Lazar could not be a high level Thrush operative. He knew even Thrush had a low tolerance for perverts, though the organization seemed to attract them in droves.
Illya stood in the corner of the room on his tiptoes, his arms yanked behind him by manacles, which were attached to some sort of pulley apparatus. His body bowed forward and shook with tension, his breathing ragged yet rhythmic. He lifted his head as Napoleon entered the room but let it fall forward again, closing his eyes, deeply meditative, managing the pain as they had been taught so long ago. Napoleon managed his own paralyzing anger with difficulty, breathing as steadily and rhythmically as his friend to control it. He assessed the situation: Lazar sitting at the head of the table, like the boss of some failing company, bouncing a little in his chair, the three guards stationed at various points in the room aiming their ubiquitous automatics. Escape was hardly imminent or obvious. Still, Napoleon had his standards. He would not be intimidated by the likes of Lionel Lazar.
"Sit down, Mr. Solo," Lazar said, sounding more nervous than commanding, nothing suave or arch in his invitation. "And keep your hands on the table where I can see them."
Napoleon sat. "Let's cut to the chase, Lazar," he said. "What do you want from us? Our mission? Okay, here it is. Illya and I were sent here to destroy or procure some sort of a new serum your organization is producing that we understand produces short term—"
"I'm not privy to Thrush's diabolical plots," Lazar interrupted, shrugging a faint apology. "Everybody wants to rule the world; it's a human frailty. And I made it all up. There is no serum." He shrugged again. "I am a simple man. I just want to have dinner with you. I'm a big admirer of yours."
Napoleon closed his eyes in amazement when an attractive young lady wheeled in another stainless steel cart, this time with a steak, a baked potato and two salads. She reached under the cart and produced a bottle of wine. She silently showed Napoleon the label of the 1961 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux, before opening it and pouring Lazar and him a glass. "Thank you," Napoleon said, taking an appreciative sip. "1945 was the better year but this is more than adequate."
"I'm not that big of an admirer," Lazar said and laughed at his own witticism. "You said you wished steak."
Napoleon beamed as the meal was placed in front of him. "Thank you," he said again and began spooning sour cream on his baked potato as he unfolded his napkin. He looked up and winked at Illya who stared at him with incredulous eyes. Illya smiled back, clearly in agony, as Napoleon turned to his meal. "You aren't joining me?" he asked his host.
"I don't eat meat," Lazar explained. "I'm a vegetarian. I don't believe in harming animals. I am just having a salad."
Napoleon let his eyes rest meaningfully on Illya and then returned his attention to Lazar. "So," he continued, cutting his steak into small pieces he hoped he could manage to swallow, "what is your purpose then?" He popped a piece of the steak into his mouth with his fingers and sighed. "Perfect, this is just wonderful. Is this a porterhouse?"
Lazar could not hide his discomfiture with Solo's performance, lacked the discernment to even know it was a performance. He sipped his wine, reddening slightly. "My purpose?" he repeated, seemingly trying to remember if he had one.
Napoleon forked another piece of steak into his mouth and washed it down with the wine. It almost hurt to eat but he persevered. "Yes, your purpose. I should have known you had no connection with our mission. Thrush, after all, is loathe to promote men like you to its upper echelon."
"Men like me?" Lazar repeated dully.
Napoleon smiled. This was going better than anticipated. "Do you mind?" he asked rising. He ignored the guards, who he had begun to think of as Moe, Larry and Curly, as they assumed firing stances. "I'd like to give Illya a little dinner. Unlike you, Mr. Lazar, he's a carnivore, red meat mostly, maybe a little chicken or fish when he's feeling less bloody-minded. He's always hungry, aren't you caro mio? I about go broke feeding him." Napoleon started to slide his plate down the conference table, as if he were in line at a cafeteria.
"Yes, I mind!" Lazar bellowed. "You come back here!"
Napoleon chanced continuing his ruse and judged the angles correctly. Automatics were poor short-range weapons. The guards could not risk firing at him without shooting each other. No one moved as he approached Illya. "Here, sweetie," he said, holding a piece of the steak to Illya's mouth. Illya accepted it, chewing slowly. "How did you know about us?" Napoleon asked Lazar. "No one else has figured it out." He affixed Lazar with one of his patented smiles, so alluring it could charm the proverbial dogs off a meat truck. He moved to put his arm around Illya, surreptitiously reaching behind him and loosening a few links of the chain.
"Know what?" Lazar asked, rising to the bait.
"Even this," Napoleon pulled at Illya's chain once more, loosening it farther. "I chain him to everything back home. The piano leg, the dining room table, the balcony—even the bed when I'm feeling unimaginative. Would you like to watch me fuck him? Illya's not the exhibitionist I am, but then he really doesn't have a choice, does he? I think he likes it that way, but, as I said, he doesn't get the choice." He held Illya's hand and started tracing a code into its palm. Someone from Section Three had developed this technique after watching the movie Miracle Worker and called it, simply, "Water." It was based on the alphabet Annie Sullivan had used with Helen Keller, though much less complicated.
The waitress, or whatever she was, backed out of the room with her cart, a strange expression on her face, something between abhorrence and panic. One of the guards looked as if he might be sick.
But Lazar was intrigued. "How about if I just fuck him, Mr. Solo?" he asked, standing.
"That's fine," Napoleon said, agreeably. "I often pass him around. He's used to it."
Napoleon yanked the chain from the pulley on the ceiling and Illya's arms fell to his side and hung there uselessly, as boneless as a rag doll's. His eyes connected with Napoleon's, signaling he had not been able to read the message traced on his palm.
Lazar stood and approached the two U.N.C.L.E. agents, grinning eagerly. "I don't believe for a moment you pass him around or chain him up or even fuck him. I know all about you, Mr. Solo. You are U.N.C.L.E.'s consummate womanizer. And you, Mr. Kuryakin, what exactly are you?"
"Number Two, Section Two," Illya replied, as if this answered the question, resolved it.
"Well, I call your bluff, Mr. Solo," Lazar said. "You say you pass him around. Well, pass him to me."
Napoleon spread his hands as he met Illya's eyes. They didn't require codes and Illya sprang to life, butting his body at Napoleon, pushing him away. "You promised," he said. "You promised you wouldn't do this anymore." He stood up straight, warming to his role. "I won't do it. You promised. You said you loved me."
Napoleon grabbed Illya's arms, rubbing circulation into them as he did so. "Oh, c'mon sweetheart, don't be so difficult."
"Difficult!" Illya said, his voice loud and resonate. "Difficult! Like I want to fuck this little maggot! Napoleon, you promised. You told me—" Illya ducked his head, eyes filling with tears. He bit his lower lip and sniffled.
Napoleon tried not to laugh. The scene reminded him of a Stan Freeberg record, a comedic parody of "Dragnet" involving St. George and the dragon. The dragon was booked for devouring maidens out of season and a 4-12. "A 4-12! What's a 4-12!" the dragon exclaimed. The Jack Webb deadpan rejoinder: "Overacting." This was almost funnier—his reserved partner's outrage. His acting was over-the-top-melodrama from the past century, little Nell tied to the railroad track.
"Napoleon, you said you loved me," Illya said, his voice now low and accusing. He sniffled once again for effect, eyes brimming tragically, as he yanked some more slack from the chains.
"Oh, but I love how—" Napoleon put his arms around Illya and briefly surveyed the room. He whispered into his ear and Illya reacted with outrage.
"I will not," Illya snarled and leaned back on the conference table. He shoved Napoleon with his feet into the closest guard. Napoleon grabbed this guard's automatic, taking advantage of the element of surprise. Illya then threw himself across the table, right into stomach of the second guard. The third, Curly perhaps, raised his gun as Napoleon aimed at him. Using the loosened chains attached to his wrists as a whip, Illya brought this guard down, wrestling the automatic from his hands, but not before a round shattered a branch from the fading Ficus tree.
Lionel Lazar sat back down and started to eat his salad. He set his Walther on the table in front of his plate and sighed. "Nicely played, gentlemen," he said. "I was riveted by the drama, engrossed."
Illya wielded the Thrush automatic at Lazar's forehead. "Would you release me?" he asked, his eyes still shining with tears.
"Of course," Lazar replied. He reached inside his jacket pocket for his keys and moved toward Illya, unlocking his manacles. Once free, Illya grabbed Lazar's gun in his right hand and pointed it at him, setting the less effective automatic on the table. "I give up," Lazar said. "You've won." He shrugged. "So you're not lovers after all."
Illya shook his head. "No," he said quietly, no longer dramatic.
"Ah, but you've tasted your partner. Perhaps I've done my small part to bridge a gap between you two."
"Don't flatter yourself," Illya said. He released the safety on the gun.
"Illya," Napoleon warned. "No."
Illya looked at his partner. "He's the only one who knows." He looked at the guards. "He and—"
"No." Napoleon repeated.
"All right," Illya said, almost inaudibly. "But you write the report, Napoleon. I will approve it. I have nothing left to say."
"Of course," Napoleon said. "My turn."
The night dragged into morning as Napoleon summoned a back-up crew to handle the live bodies. Their mission was hardly a resounding success.
Back in New York, Solo and Kuryakin faced a new torture and one they had endured before. They were both pulled from the active roster for psychiatric counseling, standard procedure following trauma. Lionel Lazar had proved most cooperative under interrogation in Los Angeles. He described the nature of Solo and Kuryakin's capture in livid detail.
Solo sat in Dr. Irving Weil's small, nauseatingly orange office and wracked his brain, trying to remember his dreams—any dream—something to engage the chain-smoking psychiatrist's grasping mind. He examined the pictures on the wall, modern art framed in chrome that looked like garish Rorschach tests. A fainting couch, upholstered in pulsating yellow and orange swirls and too big for the cramped space, was positioned under the artwork like a nightmarish afterthought.
Yes, he dreamed and he remembered his dreams but rejected sharing them with Dr. Weil. He preferred to uphold an air of mystery, in accordance with his position as head of Section Two. His dreams might be of interest to the doctor but were none of his damn business. Nothing about him was, but he had to cooperate or be delayed regaining his field certification. Plus, he sent his own agents, even Illya, to the doctor often enough. He supposed he should set an example—seeing the psychiatrist did not indicate weakness, basically like seeing any other doctor—just so much more humiliating.
Dr. Weil maintained a thriving practice on the Upper East Side and moonlighted at U.N.C.L.E. He specialized in post-traumatic stress disorders, a brand new field. No one in Section Two enjoyed being caught in his lair, an unfortunate part of the job. Napoleon regretted, for the umpteenth time, not allowing Illya to pull the trigger on Lazar. It would have shut him up.I won't tell if you don't tell. Without Lazar's enthusiastic input, Illya and he could have fabricated just about anything. No one would have been the wiser.
Solo willed his attention back to the doctor who sat primly in a swivel chair, tapping an impatient fountain pen against a reporter's steno pad. He wore a crisp seersucker suit—was it past Memorial Day already?—and a red bow tie. Solo recalled something his grandmother used to say: "Behind every bow tie is a man screaming for help." He smiled. Maybe he should start there, that would break the ice. Then he remembered his dream again, the one he most certainly would not share with Dr. Weil. He was babysitting for Illya's children, lots of them, all pretty blue-eyed blonds dressed in sailor suits like the Von Trapp family. They didn't sing though. They weren't even nice children, if memory served. He really didn't want to hear the doctor's insights on that particular turn of his subconscious.
Weil lit a cigarette and waited, gray eyes peering expectantly through bifocals, vivid with anticipation. "Your dreams, Mr. Solo?" he prompted.
"Do you want me to make them up?" Solo asked and tried to keep the snappishness from his tone.
"Do you wish to make them up?"
Solo sighed. The doctor answered all questions with questions. "I don't, uh, dream. Is Illya having nightmares?"
"Do you wish to talk about your friend then?" Weil blew a smoke ring and settled back in his chair.
"No. I wish to be field certified. I am fine. Illya's okay too."
"Have you talked to him? Has he told you this?"
"Well, no," Solo admitted. "He's been a little remote. He's mad at me."
"And how does that make you feel?"
"Fine," Solo hissed through clenched teeth. "Illya's mad at me a lot. I'm used to it."
"Why is he angry with you?"
"You want to know the truth?" Solo asked, belatedly realizing how defensive he sounded. Of course, the doctor wanted to know the truth. "He's mad because I didn't let him kill Lionel Lazar. Illya knew we'd have to go through this. He hates this worse than I do."
The doctor lifted a shoe polish black eyebrow. "Does he?"
Solo shrugged and made a face. "Doesn't he? And answer the question."
"No, he has always been much more cooperative than you. He respects the importance of what I do and is interested in my research. We are both professionals."
"And I'm not?"
"Do you think you are not?"
Solo wanted to scream but instead smiled menacingly. "I think Illya just yanks your chain—tells you what you want to hear. He's been through this routine a lot more than I have. He knows the ropes."
"Why do you think that?" Weil extinguished his cigarette in a huge oval ashtray, already filled with butts. An orange ashtray.
"Why do I think what? I just can't imagine Illya chitchatting about his inner life. I don't even think he has one."
"I am to assume he doesn't talk to you then?"
Solo fidgeted, feeling betrayed by his partner. Did he really open up to this quack? "We talk. Sometimes. Illya's fairly closemouthed."
The doctor's eyes twinkled. "An interesting choice of words. Closed mouthed?"
Solo started to laugh, flushed, and looked away. The doctor intended no joke; he had no sense of humor. "Dammit, doctor, don't—" Solo paused to compose himself. "Shall we cut to the chase, then?"
"Is that what you wish to do?"
"You know what happened. Illya gave me a blowjob and I responded. It was at gunpoint. That's all there is to it. We'll recover. We've survived other ordeals together and we'll survive this."
Weil lit another cigarette. "Yes, I've read your report. Usually Mr. Kuryakin writes them, at least the ones I've been privy to. Isn't that true? This one is rather terse but says enough. Shall I retrieve it? Perhaps we can compare it to the much more detailed account from Mr. Lazar's interrogation. Shall we compare notes?"
"It's not necessary," Solo said, leaning forward aggressively. "My report says all you or Waverly or anyone else needs to know. Look, I've been around the block. I hope this doesn't shock you. It's not the first time I've been fellated by a man and judging from Illya's skill, it's not the first time he has ever done it, either."
"Did his proficiency bother you?"
Solo flushed again. Why implicate his friend? "Hey, I'm not casting stones. Maybe he's never done it before. He plays the French horn—maybe he's just good at blowing things."
"It's the English horn, is it not?" the doctor corrected.
"French, English...who the hell cares?"
"So you think he just transferred his musical abilities to other, uh, skills?"
"No, not really," Solo confessed. "Isn't our time up?"
Weil glanced at his wristwatch. "Not quite. Is it somehow comforting to you to think of your partner as asexual? Is it easier to imagine his expertise on the English horn—and it is the English horn—explains his skill at fellatio?"
"Rather than his having done it with other men, you mean?"
"If that's how you would like to interpret the question," Weil allowed.
"I don't think of Illya as asexual," Solo said.
"How do you think of him then?"
Solo rolled his eyes. The questions were growing tedious. "I guess I think of him as my little brother."
"Not a brother, but a little brother?"
Solo shifted in his chair. God, this man could turn things around. "Well, he is younger than I am and smaller. I am his superior," Solo concluded, sounding a little haughty. Defensive. Shit, he was screwing this up!
"Superior?" Weil asked. "What do you mean by superior?"
"I am the chief of enforcement here. I outrank him. I outrank everybody in Section Two."
"But, Mr. Solo, you used the term 'brother' not 'boss,' did you not? Do you feel like a brother to all your Section Two subordinates?"
Solo shook his head, defeated. "Illya is my partner. Have you ever had a partner, doctor?"
"No. But I have two younger brothers. I feel protective of them and sometimes competitive with them. Would this describe your fraternal feelings toward Mr. Kuryakin?" Weil smiled smugly as if he had lobbed a tennis ball into the far corner of the court.
Solo smiled back and allowed the point. What was it?—40-love by now? "Yes. I suppose it's the same as how you feel about your brothers."
"You sound hesitant. Does a partnership suggest other feelings, different responsibilities?"
"As you know, I've never had a real brother. I'll just have to imagine my feelings toward Illya are fraternal."
"And yet you've crossed a line, what in most societies is considered a taboo. Does that change the dynamic"
"At gunpoint, Dr. Weil," Solo reminded him. "It was a coerced act."
Weil inhaled his cigarette. "Of course. A coerced act. I read your report. You would never initiate such behavior yourself."
Was that a question? Solo reached forward and took a cigarette from the doctor's pack and allowed Weil to light it for him. "I would not force him. Never."
"No, of course not," the doctor soothed, "you think of him as a brother. A little brother. A sexual connotation does not exist. Does it?"
Solo met the doctor's eyes, drawing deeply on the borrowed cigarette. Game, Dr. Weil. He seldom smoked; Illya didn't like him to. Illya didn't like a lot of things he did. He felt dizzy. This had not played out well. He was revealing too much. "What do you want me to say?" he asked. "It happened. It doesn't change things between us. I'm more ashamed of falling into Lazar's clutches. He was just a low-level Thrush pervert and Illya and I shouldn't have found ourselves in such a position. We're really to blame."
"You were careless, you and your partner?"
Solo nodded. "We should not have been caught and we both were."
"And this Lazar fellow forced you into a position," Weil emphasized Solo's own word. "One you would never have considered otherwise?"
Solo took a long drag on his cigarette. "Yes. Essentially, yes." Oh damn it to hell! Why did he qualify his response? Did the cigarette contain truth serum?
The doctor did not miss a beat and pounced on the inference. "And yet you suspect, musical talents or not, your partner has done this before and you have done it also. How do you feel about this?"
"Fine," Solo said and commanded himself to silence.
The doctor nodded. "You and Mr. Kuryakin have always been unusually close. And yet you are telling me, even though—"
Solo's eyes flashed a warning. "Don't repeat office water cooler gossip," he said. "I know what people say about us. We are friends."
"I know that," Weil said. "Of course." He smiled ironically as he checked his watch. "I think it may be a good exercise for you to write about what transpired. Not a report, more like a journal or a diary. It would help you to process, don't you think? Help you work through your conflicting emotions. You may want to share your thoughts with Mr. Kuryakin. Or not. Do you know he complains about having to write the reports?"
"Yes, I do," Solo said. "I know that. He complains about a great many things. I did write the report this time."
"Yes, I know you did. I found that curious. Why did you feel the need to write this one?"
"My turn. That's all. So you want to read another version?" Solo glared at the doctor. "You want to know more?"
"No, no, no. Keep it in a drawer. Write it for yourself, not me or anyone else. You have a flair for narrative, even your brief report on this unfortunate turn of events demonstrates this. Shouldn't we, after all, write for ourselves? I think it would help." Weil consulted his watch again. "I'm afraid our time is up."
"When do we meet again?" Solo asked and schooled his expression to blandness. He thought of Illya as he did so—his partner was so good at hiding his emotions.
"I'm sure we'll have occasion to meet again," Dr. Weil said, "but I am field certifying you."
"You are?" Solo tried to keep the surprise out of his voice.
"Yes. I'm not here to psychoanalyze you, to cure you." Weil sighed grandly. "If you were perfectly sane you would not wish to return to the field. Have you ever read "Catch-22," Mr. Solo?"
"So I'm just crazy enough?"
"Is that what you think?"
The session ended on another question.
Napoleon felt gleeful, like a kid let out for an early and unearned recess, and sought his partner to tell him the good news. He looked everywhere and found Illya in the first place he should have looked and the last place he thought of—the commissary. Maybe he shouldn't have been field certified after all. "It's a little late for lunch," Napoleon called to him.
Illya sat at a small table in the corner, a stack of files in front of him and his tray pushed to one side, most of his meal uneaten. Napoleon glanced at the tray and frowned. So unlike Illya to lose his appetite, but then again, maybe he was finally assimilating to the West. Maybe he, too, could no longer stomach the commissary food. He dismissed the memory of spoon-feeding his partner the mystery stew in Lazar's cell and dismissed a few other unwelcome memories as well. Maybe Illya was just upset. He didn't want him to be upset. Illya smiled briefly in acknowledgment, as Napoleon poured himself a coffee and joined him.
"I passed," Napoleon said. "I am sane enough for active duty."
"That's good. I'm glad," Illya replied. He took off his glasses and stared at Napoleon, his expression preoccupied and unreadable. He looked back down at the files.
"When do you see Dr. Weil?"
"I saw him yesterday," Illya replied.
"And? Why didn't you tell me you were field certified too?"
"Because I'm not." Illya lined up the silverware on his tray and avoided Napoleon's questioning eyes.
"Why? What happened?" They were alone in the commissary but still he pulled his chair closer to his partner. "I thought you were okay with what happened. I mean, aside from my not allowing you to kill Lazar in cold blood."
"I'm okay," Illya said.
"So then why aren't you field certified? I don't like working without you."
Illya still did not look up but smiled. "I tried, Napoleon. I went to see Irv yesterday afternoon and—"
"You call him 'Irv'"? Napoleon interrupted.
"Yes, don't you?" Illya's brow puckered with consternation. "Anyway, I went to see him and lay down on his couch—"
"You what! Why the couch?"
"He's a psychiatrist, isn't it protocol?"
"In New Yorker cartoons perhaps."
Illya raised his chin and finally met Napoleon's eyes, his expression both troubled and defiant. "Well, I've always talked from the couch. It's preferable to looking at it and I thought that was how it was done."
Illya stared into the distance. "I fell asleep," he said, almost inaudibly.
"You what?" Napoleon grinned.
"I fell asleep," Illya repeated. "He woke me when our session was over and told me I had to come back. He also told me I snored." Illya shrugged. "I was tired."
"That's a fifty-dollar nap. You are fiscally irresponsible." Napoleon still grinned.
"You sound like Mr. Waverly," Illya said. "I am sorry. I should have thought of something to say."
Napoleon leaned forward. The commissary remained deserted but he mistrusted headquarters—the walls not only had ears but eyes. Little went unnoticed and less unobserved. "Lazar did not ruin our partnership, did he?" Napoleon asked. "You don't have any reservations about working with me again?" The question sounded like an order.
"Of course not." Illya ducked his head and stared up from beneath his thick eyelashes.
Napoleon's stomach lurched and he felt his groin respond to the flirtatious gaze. "Don't do that if you don't mean it, " he warned.
"Mean what?" Illya asked.
Napoleon answered his communicator before the second note sounded. "Where are you?" Illya asked. "Come here right now."
"Of course," Napoleon replied and rushed to their shared office. A joke—an invitation—he had no idea how Illya would take it. He didn't even really know how he meant it. But he had written a diary as Dr. Weil suggested.
He entered their cramped office and his partner glanced up from behind his desk, file in hand. "This is the report you submitted to Waverly?" Illya asked. "This? What happened to the other one?"
"Yes." Napoleon dropped into a chair and tried to look serious, arranging his mobile features into the bland expression he had learned from his partner. "I added a bit."
"You said I could approve our report before you submitted it. I didn't approve this."
"Is there a problem?" Napoleon asked.
"This is a carbon copy. Where is the original?"
"Is there a problem?" Napoleon repeated.
"Yes," Illya said. "Let's start with the title: "'The Unexpected Talents Affair.'" He raised an annoyed eyebrow.
"A good name, I think. I was surprised, as I often am, by your myriad skills. Would you like to suggest something else?"
"Yes," Illya replied. "'The Answered Prayers Affair' comes to mind."
"Whose prayers were answered?"
"Let's keep it ambiguous," Illya said. "Although I don't pray, as you know." He glanced down at the report. "'N.S. and I.K. were captured'," he read. "That's it?"
Napoleon nodded. "I didn't think I needed to go into detail. It's sort of embarrassing, don't you agree?"
Illya smiled faintly. "Yes." He leafed through a few pages, counting silently. "You don't find the rest of it embarrassing? I notice you don't skimp on the remaining commentary."
Napoleon shrugged modestly. "Plot sometimes interferes with a good storyline, don't you think?"
"I wouldn't know. You've told me my writing is, I believe you said, atrocious."
"Ah, don't be so sensitive. As long as you enjoy what you write. And I meant atrocious in the best sense of the word."
Illya snorted and stared down again at one of the pages of the report. "I assume I am 'the blond.'" He pointed to a smudged, purple word on the carbon copy.
"Isn't it obvious? You do have blond hair."
"'Soft as corn silk,'" Illya read.
Napoleon nodded. "Very soft and thick and—"
"I have a name, Napoleon."
"Don't I mention it?"
"Not often. 'The blond,' 'the Russian,' 'the smaller agent.' You're not that much taller than I."
"Perhaps. You're pretty little, though."
Illya shook his head and pointed an accusing finger to the text. "'The younger agent,'" he read. "Napoleon, I'm not that much younger than you either."
Napoleon shrugged. "I got that from 'The Hardy Boys.'"
Illya paused, momentarily confused. "The Hardy Boys?" he asked. "Am I supposed to know who they are?"
"A series I read in my boyhood. They were amateur detectives. Frank was the serious, intelligent, dark-haired, dark-eyed older brother and Joe was his impetuous, blond, blue-eyed younger brother. Like us."
Illya looked down at the report and frowned. "Napoleon," he finally said. "I admit to a certain ignorance about American culture. Was this 'Hardy Boys' series," he paused, "pornographic in nature? Am I to believe what I was taught about Western decadence?"
Napoleon grinned. "Uh, no. I don't think they had a sexual life. I think Frank was eighteen and Joe sixteen or seventeen. I don't even think they had girlfriends—too busy solving mysteries."
"Well, this has nothing whatsoever to do with solving anything."
"I didn't actually steal from 'The Hardy Boys.' I just used a few of its narrative tricks."
"Tricks?" Illya nodded and scanned the report. "'Cerulean eyes?'"
"That means blue," Napoleon explained, smiling as his know-it-all partner took the bait.
Illya raised his cerulean eyes with annoyance. "Yes, I know. From the Latin 'Caeruleus,'" he said. "Dark blue—'caelum'—sky. I speak Latin"
"You do? Who do you talk to?"
"Myself," Illya muttered. He ran his finger down the report. "I don't blush. I don't 'blush like a schoolboy.'"
"I stand corrected then," Napoleon replied. "Sometimes I forget just how cool you are."
Illya sighed. "'Pouty, rosy lower lip?'"
"I'll forgive the blushing but, Illya, look at yourself. How would you describe your lower lip?"
"I'm not clear why it needed to be described. And I most certainly did not choke, my jaw was most definitely not stretched by the 'impressive thickness of...'" Illya raised an eyebrow and blushed and then blushed again as he read further, "'the older agent's proud erection?' Erections have personal attributes?"
Napoleon nodded. "Mine is very proud. Maybe yours is not as fortunate."
Illya shot him a warning glance. Then he looked down at the report and composed himself. "I am a scientist, Napoleon," he said.
"Yes. Perhaps your erection is analytical then."
Illya opened the center drawer of his desk and withdrew a ruler. "'Nine inches of throbbing manhood,'" he read. He stood up, ruler in hand. "I don't think so."
"A bit of artistic license," Napoleon admitted.
"A bit?" Illya asked and sat on his desk in front of his partner. He stroked the ruler with his fingers. "Why don't you show me and I'll measure."
"Not here, Illya."
"You didn't really submit this report to Mr. Waverly, did you?"
"No." Napoleon glanced up at his partner. "Dr. Weil suggested I write another version."
"Where is the original?"
Napoleon smiled. This had gone better than expected—Illya was not only amused but intrigued. "It's under my bed."
Illya frowned, his brow creasing. "Under your bed?" he asked. "Why there?"
"Because you are not in my bed. It passes the time." He held his breath.
"I beg your pardon." Illya tilted his head, staring at Napoleon with stunned, quizzical eyes, as blue as a clear summer sky.
"You heard me."
Illya glanced down at the ruler in his hand and ran his index finger up the markings, pausing at the nine-inch mark. "So, am I to understand, that is where you would like me to conduct my measurements?" He put the ruler in the inside pocket of his jacket and stood up.
Napoleon also stood up and looked down at his partner, his prominent chin jutting in wounded dignity. "You know what they say, 'Good things come in small packages.'"
"Yes, I've heard that. I think it's said by those bearing small packages."
"You cut me to the quick," Napoleon replied, unconcerned. "I've never had any complaints."
Illya grinned and walked toward the door. "Good. I don't like to complain."
"Really?" Napoleon asked again.
Illya nodded as he stepped into the corridor. "My talents may be unexpected but yours are the stuff of legends."
Napoleon fell in step with his partner. "You won't be disappointed," he promised.
Illya reached in his pocket and handed Napoleon the ruler. "Neither will you."