On the Wings of Love/The Best Laid Plans

by ChannelD

ON THE WINGS OF LOVE - the first of two companion stories

"Bring Kuryakin over here!" one man snapped. "Give him the full treatment. You might as well talk now, Kuryakin. You'll be begging to, soon enough." I closed my eyes, and reached for my training.

It had been a long time—nearly two years now, since I had been reassigned from Section Two. I ran the science department these days, a relatively safe berth, but someone had ordered that I be picked up and interrogated regarding my newest project. So they had taken me by surprise, jabbing a needle into my back on the subway, and here I was. And the training was still right there, even after all this time.

Rape is just another form of torture, and not as bad as some. This is what they taught me in the course everyone has to take at the beginning of a field career, and I suppose it is true. But it's hard to keep that in mind when they're dragging you, as they were dragging me now, naked, wrists bound behind my back. Then a rough hard surface was under my belly and chest, I was being tied to a bench, over it, face down and ready. Ready for them. I took a deep breath. Only another form of torture, and not as bad as some. Not as bad, surely, as being burned alive, or vivisected. Not as bad as .. hands gripped my buttocks, spread them wide.

Remove yourself from the situation, the instructor had said. Leave them only a body. Deny them your protests, your pleas—deny them your self. Think about something else.

I tried. I tried to work mathematical formulae in my head in that last dizzying moment, but then came a searing thrust, a burning pressure that was intolerable, just intolerable and my body arched and twisted and strained, trying to stop what was happening. It was no use. It had never been any use.

This had happened to me before. I had spent my adult life not thinking about it, not thinking about my childhood, and my uncle and the things he did to me. It meant nothing now. It was over, my uncle was dead, and I was grown. That sad little boy was long gone, to wherever children go when the adult emerges.

But now here it was happening again, and the memories were freed from their prison cell. Again the pain came, and again, and I fled.

I fled as I had always done, running away inside my mind to my safe place, the room I had created when I was very young, and literal the way children are literal. I needed somewhere to hide from him so I created a room, a hidden attic room in the big old house, a room with a door so small only a child could get through it. I would hide there, huddled in a small space—trapped, really, but it was cool, and clean, and quiet. Sometimes a bolt of pain from the body below would burst through, but mostly it was my haven. My only haven.

The door was still just big enough for me. I crawled through, then I locked it, locking him—them, I corrected myself—out, with the enormous wooden bolt I must have read about in some book. Then I turned around, and there he was. A little boy with long blond hair sat huddled in a corner, staring at me with great blue eyes drowned in tears. I stared back.

"It's happening again," he whispered, and the tears spilled over. I nodded. "Why is it happening again? I thought it was over."

"I'm sorry," I said. I didn't know what else to say.

"Is it him?"

"No. It's no one we know."

"Then why—" pain shot through us both, agonizing pain and we cried out together. I caught myself and clenched my fists, breathing deeply but then another jolt hit and my legs gave way. I collapsed onto the floor, gasping, crying out again, then I forced myself into a sitting position because the little boy was curled in a tight ball on the floor screaming, and that was worse than all the pain put together.

I held out my arms to him, not knowing if he would—could—accept an embrace, but he crawled over and onto my lap. I held him, wanting to shield him from the pain. It worked, because when the next pang came he didn't even flinch. I smothered my own groan in his sweet smelling hair and was thankful. I was an adult. I could endure it. It was nothing personal, after all, just a technique they thought might work. It wouldn't work, and maybe they would figure that out and stop, or maybe they would continue until I died.

Or maybe Napoleon would come and rescue me. Surely he was looking. If I could just stay here, in this quiet place with only occasional reminders of the events happening below me, then maybe I could outlast them.

There came a long interval of nothing. Finally, after signaling to the child to wait, I slipped back through the door and down the stairs. I felt heavier with each step, and the pain was constant now, a grinding sweaty agony. I opened my eyes.

I was in a cell, my hands still bound, and I was alone. They had finished for now, and brought me here. I forced myself to my feet because you had to keep trying, you never gave up, so I investigated the lock, and the door, and the bars around me, and the cement holding them to the wall. All was in perfect working order. There were no windows. There was no way out. I slumped back down on the floor, and waited.

They returned again, and again, and their brutality increased with each failure. I knew what they hoped—they hoped that the periods of waiting in between would make each session harder to bear, and they were right. It was harder. It wasn't impossible though, and I wouldn't talk. I would never talk. The only sounds I made were those forced from me by pain, or shock. I wouldn't talk. I never talked.

Upstairs, I had my hands full. The alternating torture and solitude had broken the little boy wide open. He wasn't an agent, and he had had no training yet. How could he stand against a coterie of increasingly enraged Thrush agents? He couldn't. I had to stand for us both. When I came in this time he was running frantically around the room, battering the walls with his little hands. He tugged at the bolt after I fastened it, and I shook my head.

"You don't want to go down there yet," I said, catching him by the shoulders and holding him still. "They're going to do it some more."

"Why is it still happening?" he implored me, tears making new streaks over old. "It never lasted so long before, even with him it never lasted so long. I want it to stop, I want it to stop!" He hid his face in my shoulder and I rocked him, and stroked his hair, and tried to hide it when the pain came.

"What do you like to do when you're not in here?" I asked, trying to distract both of us. He turned his head a little so he could see my face.

"I like to explore the woods, and swim in the lake," he said finally and just the words brought my uncle's house back to me so clearly I could hardly bear it. But I kept that to myself, and made an encouraging sound. "I know where the ground birds nest, and where the fox has her den. I have a pet wolf, and we know the secret trails."

"And you like all of that?"

"Oh, yes. Now that I'm alone." He looked at me solemnly. "Since you killed him."

"Since I killed him," I repeated. Then I smiled. "But shh. That's a secret."

"I know."

"You don't get lonely, all by yourself?"

"No. I like it."

"Are you—are you happy?"

"Are you?"

Caught off guard, I couldn't think of anything to say for several minutes. More pain crashed into my awareness, and I set myself against it. "I'm not sure," I answered finally.

"When you see the man with the brown eyes, you are."

This time I almost welcomed the distraction of the pain. I breathed through clenched teeth, aware of those big blue eyes fixed on my face. Finally I could speak again. "What man?" Although I knew, of course I knew.

"The man with the brown eyes who smiles at you like he loves you."

"How would you know?" It was out before I could stop it, and I was sorry right away. I hadn't meant it the way it sounded. He didn't seem offended, though.

"I wouldn't know. But you do."


"And when you're happy, I fly. I fly like I'm swimming in the air. It's my favorite thing of all."

"Oh," I said again, rather inanely, and then had to stop talking and just breathe while more pain wracked me, rending me with its savage teeth, shaking me. He didn't press me. He just tucked his head back into the crook of my neck and, with me, waited for it to be over.

Later, when all was quiet, I stayed upstairs. It was the first time I had done so. Usually I went back down to our body when I judged it was over for the moment, because it seemed important to remain aware of my surroundings, to know what was happening. But he was still clinging to me, even in the depths of slumber, and to pry him loose and leave him alone would be cruel. So I stayed, and let him sleep. He slept for a long time and it had started up again before he woke. I remained as still as possible but he sat up anyway, and looked seriously into my eyes.

"Thank you for protecting me," he whispered. "I know it still hurts you." He reached out, stroked my face and I smiled at him, disarmed by his attempt to return comfort for comfort given.

"I have to go down next time it stops," I said and he looked at me for a while longer, then nodded. "Otherwise..." I didn't know how to finish it. Would a point come when I could no longer slip so easily into my battered body? And what would that mean? Madness? Death?

"I know," was all he said and I looked at him curiously. What did he know? Too much, for a child his age. Far too much. I held him, and together we waited for the next interval of calm.

It never came. There was a crashing and a shaking, a series of sounds that seemed, like the pain, too much to be born but we bore them, clinging to one another. He was terrified, but I was hopeful and tried to convey that to him. "We might be being rescued," I told him. "Let me go and see."

"Rescued?" He looked at me blankly and I remembered that the concept of rescue, of someone caring enough to save him, was foreign. No one had ever cared. I stroked his hair, filled with pity. It was odd. I had never, even while my uncle lived, felt as sorry for myself as I did for him now. Looking into those eyes, which held all the purity and innocence of childhood, I felt my heart break for him. I forced myself to smile anyway.

"Yes. Napoleon—the man who loves us—is looking for us. He's smart, and he's brave. He'll find us, and make them stop."

"But maybe it's a trick, and you'll never come back and when it starts again I'll be all alone!"

"Maybe," I acknowledged. "But maybe we could get away if I can see what's happening. Let me go."

He did—long accustomed to obeying the adults around him, and I gave him a quick squeeze before venturing downstairs.

I was untied. That was my first awareness—my hands weren't tied, and they hurt. I groaned, and Napoleon's voice became my second awareness. I forced my eyes open.

"Illya," he was saying. "Illya, can you hear me? Don't try to move, you're hurt. I can't believe what they've—medic!" He shouted it.

I looked into Napoleon's face. He was kneeling beside me, and the shock of whatever he was seeing was in his eyes. I forced myself to speak because I had to know. "Napoleon."

"Yes? Medic! Over here!" There was a lot of noise and commotion coming from somewhere, and I tried to make my voice louder.

"Is it over?"

He had been looking about, presumably for the still elusive medic, but at that his focus returned to me, sharp and intent and for that moment I felt I was the only person in the universe. He took my hand between his. "Yes, Illya," he answered. "It's over. We're going to chopper you out as soon as the doctor checks you."

"Are you coming with me?"

"Do you want me to?"

I did, but hesitated to say so. There was obviously a large operation going on all around us. Napoleon no doubt had many duties waiting for him.

"They don't need me," he said as if reading my thoughts, and maybe he was. "If you do, you've got me."

"I need you," I said, feeling a great sickness and weariness coming over me. "I need you, Napoleon. We both do."

"What?" He leaned closer still, peered directly into my face. His own face seemed to waver, then spiral out so I could hardly see him and if it weren't for his hands holding my own I'd have thought him gone. I could hear him shouting again for the medic, and then I was through the door and in that quiet room.

It wasn't so very quiet now, the sounds of the search and rescue mission penetrating even here. The child was sitting on the floor, cross legged. The delicate little face looked pinched and wan from the long confinement, but the closest thing to a smile I had yet seen touched his colorless lips when he saw me. I smiled too, and sat beside him.

"It's over," I said, and he nodded. "You can —" I hesitated. Where would he go? Where had he been, all these years?

"I know it is. When you didn't come back I went looking for you. I thought maybe you needed help. I saw him."

"Napoleon?" It moved me so deeply, that he had overcome his fear to try and help me, that I couldn't even speak of it. I hugged him, hard, and he hugged me back.

"Yes. I know if he's here, everything must be all right."

I swallowed, and lifted him onto my lap. "Yes it is." He didn't weigh very much, and he tucked his head into my neck with a sigh of satisfaction. Darkness was closing in now, and as sleep took us both I turned my head and kissed his cheek, very lightly, tasting the salt of tears and something else, a fresh clean scent that was pure childhood.

Napoleon was sleeping in the chair beside my hospital bed. I studied his face fondly, seeing the lines of care and worry, the hard set of his lips, even in repose. Napoleon stayed away during the day, when the doctors and nurses and debriefers swarmed around my bed, giving me little rest and no peace. But at night, when the hospital was quiet and his own work day finished, he came. He always brought my dinner, knowing exactly what I would feel like eating, knowing sometimes better than I did myself.

Tonight it had been pizza, plain cheese pizza from my favorite pizzeria and I tore into it ravenously, making him laugh. I was ravenous because I had refused food all day, with more than a touch of that sullenness which had earned me my reputation as one of the worst patients in New York. I didn't care. I was tired of being here, tired of the questions and the needles, tired of the probing fingers and cold metal instruments. I was tired of being counseled.

They wanted me to talk about it, so I did. Times had changed, and things which one was once expected to endure in silence and privacy now were laid bare for all to see and analyze. Perhaps this was better. I didn't know, and cared less. All I cared for was to get through it.

I didn't mention the little boy. I didn't think it was crazy, that I had seen him and spoken to him—it seemed perfectly natural, given everything. Maybe if I had spread my childhood out for someone to see and analyze back in the beginning it would be easier now, but I didn't really think so. At any rate, it seemed a harmless coping mechanism. I wasn't worried by it, but I knew too how it would sound spoken out loud, so I didn't.

I talked instead about how the training had helped me, talked of my attempts to work math problems, of my withdrawal into the recesses of my mind, of denying them my self, as I had been taught. I repeated the mantra that rape is just another form of torture, and not as bad as some. They were pleased with all of this, and certified me mentally fit for duty. I was a credit to my training, they said. I should be proud.

The physicians too were pronouncing themselves satisfied. I was sure of being discharged tomorrow or, at latest, the next day. I had fallen asleep after the last exam and woke to see Napoleon, smiling at me over the steaming fragrant pizza box. Now the box lay by the door, the hospital was quiet, and Napoleon slept in the chair.

Seeing him like this, open and defenseless despite the grim set of his mouth, tugged at my heartstrings sharply, sweetly. It was seldom that Napoleon Solo let down his guard, and few who were privileged to see it. Napoleon wore his armor as I wore mine. Mine was all chill and frost, icy threat and stony glowers. Napoleon's consisted of smiles and charm, diplomacy and steel—steel which remained well hidden, and was provoked at one's own risk.

Throughout our first year together I was dazzled by his abilities. Although I had been very well trained, there were of course a million and one things about being a field agent that I didn't know, and that Napoleon had had to teach me. He had been thorough and exacting, but patient, too, and kind. It had been his kindness that had broken me. No, not broken. Melted. The warmth and strength of Napoleon's personality, the concern he showed for my well being—I couldn't stand against it. I didn't even try.

A crisis of sorts in our partnership arose around the middle of the second year. Our latest assignment had been a disaster, and Napoleon and I had been caught flat footed not once but three times. People had died who shouldn't have died and Napoleon—Napoleon didn't take failure well. He had been irritable and short tempered, had snapped at me repeatedly as if it were all my fault, and then had added insult to injury by leaving me with the paperwork while he took the very attractive female civilian out for dinner. I did the work, fuming the whole time. I was still smarting under Napoleon's repeated tongue lashings, and hurt on a deeper level by what I saw as a betrayal of trust. I had trusted Napoleon, and Napoleon had hurt me. Like everyone else, just like everyone else, and I was a fool for thinking he was different.

At home I continued sulking. Perversely, I ate a cold supper while bitterly dwelling on the magnificent repast no doubt being shared by Napoleon and that insipid fool of a girl. I sat in front of the TV afterwards and scowled at the screen. I was engaged in working up an inner dialogue between Napoleon and myself, one where Napoleon was unreasonable—again, but this time I responded to each verbal assault with dignity and sharpness of wit, leaving Napoleon confounded. So engrossed was I in this satisfying occupation that I almost didn't hear the knock at my door . Annoyed further I pushed myself up, went across the room and peered through the peephole, ready to take the head off of whoever it was.

It was Napoleon. Napoleon, looking disheveled and weary and... I sniffed as I opened the door... drunk. Very drunk. "Hello, Napoleon," I said coldly. I wasn't ready to make up yet, and didn't particularly want some sort of inebriated apology. But Napoleon only nodded, and made his stumbling, weaving way across the floor where he collapsed full length onto the sofa. I closed the door and sat down beside him, shoving him over to make room. I didn't know why he was here, but I wasn't giving up the only comfortable seat in the room so he could stretch out when he had a perfectly good bed at home. He didn't seem offended—just lifted his head and laid it back down on my lap. I sat still, frozen by surprise and—and something else I couldn't describe. My thighs felt warm where his head rested, and a new tenderness rose. "Napoleon," I began and he shook his head, his stubbled cheek scratching my leg through my pants. I swallowed, feeling—I didn't know what I was feeling. But I liked it, this warm surge, this quivering hypersensitivity to Napoleon's touch, his scent, the feel of him there.

"Don't talk," he whispered. "I know I'm a shit. I'm sorry. Can we please deal with it tomorrow? I'm so tired, and this is the only..." he turned so his face was buried in my stomach. I stared at his dark hair and wanted to touch it. "My only haven," he finished and put one arm around my waist, as if holding on to his haven even in sleep.

It was a long time before I slept. I sat there, staring at the recumbent figure as the light faded, and soon I could barely see Napoleon at all. I did touch his hair, finally, with trembling fingers and, when he didn't move, stroked it. It felt crisp, and soft, too—sleek if brushed one way, slightly bristly when I changed direction. That made him stir, and I froze until he was still then laid my hand down again, very gently, feeling his warmth through my palm, through my groin where his head pressed.

There was no sexual stirring—not then. I had never felt this thing everyone else put such store in. If such a feeling had ever arisen I didn't remember it. I had distanced myself as completely as I could from the things my uncle did to me, and in so doing had apparently closed that door for good.

I'm not stupid. In the course of getting my education I had to take many social science classes, and I knew that my childhood would have—must have—shaped me in ways I didn't even know about now. So what? I didn't concern myself with what was done and could not be undone. I was too busy living my new life to dwell on the old one. I was thankful for my freedom, for my classes, my education. Later I was thankful for my position with UNCLE, and for this partner with whom I felt such rapport, but whose sexual interests so clearly lay elsewhere. It was all I'd ever wanted, and it had always been enough.

Tonight, however, though there was no arousal there was—for the first time ever—a glimpse of how that could be possible. If one were sure enough of the other, if there was sufficient trust. If there was this warmth, and tenderness then maybe... I put my head back on the sofa then, and stared into the darkness. I kept my hand there, on Napoleon's head, and when sleep finally came my dreams were sweet.

Now I watched Napoleon sleep once again, slouched at an awkward looking angle in that hard backed hospital chair. It was enormously reassuring to have him there. Hearing his soft breathing, my whole body aware of his presence, it was easy to let sleep take me too. I slept soundly, despite the inevitable disruptions by hospital staff, and the very next morning, I was discharged.

Alone. I stood in the middle of an open field and allowed myself to feel the wonder of it. Alone. It seemed an eternity since I was all by myself, with no one pulling or tugging at me, no one handling me or putting needles into me or beating me senseless. No one fucking me. No eyes on me—jeering and mocking, or probing and analyzing. Nothing. Nothing to touch me but the breeze lifting my hair, cooling my face.

Alone. I sat down on the ground, then lay flat on my back, staring up into the deep blue sky. Great white clouds sailed slowly by, alternately darkening the fields around me then moving on to allow the full sunlight in, making me close my eyes against it. It seemed I could feel the earth turning as I lay there on its surface, grass prickling the back of my neck. I spread my fingers wide against the ground, reveling in each individual tickle that said I was alive, and free.

I was grateful to Napoleon. It was Napoleon who had arranged all of this, when I had refused his offer to install me in his own apartment. "In the lap of luxury, Illya," he had pleaded just this morning in my hospital room, while I waited for the nurse to wheel me out. "I'll wait on you hand and foot, and..." he sighed. "No, I suppose not."

"No. But thank you. I appreciate—Napoleon, you know I appreciate it, don't you? I told you, it's nothing against you. I just—I need to be by myself right now. I need solitude, and peace, and no one looking at me and bothering me, feeling sorry for me and worrying about me..." I stopped, remorseful. Napoleon looked as if I had struck him, and that hadn't been my intention. "Not—not you," I finished lamely. "I didn't mean you. I like it that you worry about me." I did, but sometimes it seemed too much, the weight of Napoleon's worry. The weight of Napoleon's compassion. The weight of Napoleon's love.

"He looks at you like he loves you," that little boy had said, and he was right. Napoleon loved me. Had, evidently, loved me for a very long time without speaking it. He had finally poured his heart out to me at his apartment, over blackberry brandy and caviar, on the very day we were removed from active fieldwork, the day our long time and wildly successful partnership was officially broken up.

"I love you," he had said hoarsely, and his face and his voice only underlined the truth of his statement. "I've always loved you. But I could never tell you while we were field partners, and I was your immediate supervisor. It would have been inappropriate, and against procedure."

"It would have been dangerous," I retorted defiantly, not sure why I felt defiant. I had moved back, away from Napoleon, and he set his drink down and regarded me with... what? I couldn't read his expression, and that unnerved me further. "A dangerous distraction," I finished flatly.

"Would it?" Napoleon looked earnestly into my eyes. "Would it have made such a difference? As it was, they used us against each other. My feelings—our feelings, Illya, were no secret. It's one of the reasons Mr. Waverly has ended it early."

"I know. I was there when he told us, remember?" I knew that I was churlish, to say the least. Napoleon was being honest and sincere, and I was throwing it back in his face. I flushed, ashamed of myself. He must have seen it, because he moved closer, eliminating the distance I had just put between us.

"It's all right, Illya," he said gently, with obvious compassion for my obvious distress. It shamed me further, and I swallowed.

I would answer his honesty with my own, then. It was the least I could do and remain worthy of his—of his love. But I couldn't look at him and say such things, so I focused my gaze on his top button and forced the words from my lips. "I love you too, Napoleon. But that doesn't mean I want to—I mean, I don't even know what you're suggesting. If you're suggesting anything." I felt foolish. Probably Napoleon wasn't suggesting anything, and I was making a—a big deal. He was probably just putting words to the long smoldering feelings between us prior to setting it all aside and moving on with his work.

"You love me?" he said, and it was clear he hadn't heard a word beyond that. "Illya—you love me?"

I looked into his face, and saw a terrible hope in those dark eyes. Napoleon reached out, brushed a strand of loose hair back behind my ear. I held myself very still. "I love you," I said again. "But..."

"But?" The hope dimmed, and that hurt me. "Of course there's a but. It would be too easy—but what, Illya?"

"But —" the attraction was so strong, from him to me. It seemed to pull me in, as if Napoleon had a gravitational field all his own, and instinctively I stiffened against it. It terrified me, the power of that attraction, and my own lack of will to resist it terrified me more. I backed away from him again and this time he didn't follow. He just sat there on the sofa, watching me. "I don't want to," I said finally, hearing the childishness of it as I said it.

"You don't want to what, Illya?" And when I only looked away from him he sighed. "You don't want to love me," he said, and his voice was sad. I shot him a quick glance and he was looking at me very soberly. "You do, but it's against your better judgment. You don't want to risk your heart, you don't want to let anyone into your splendid isolation, and you don't trust me not to hurt you."

It was all so true I couldn't look at him anymore. "I don't even know what you're suggesting," I repeated obstinately, addressing his words and not his feelings. His feelings were so strong, I didn't know how to address them.

"That didn't stop you from saying no. I'll tell you what I'm suggesting, Illya. I want us to be together. I want you to move in here, with me. I want to open my life and my heart to you, and for you to do the same. For better or for worse, as long as we both shall live." He swallowed. Then, "Illya!" His voice was sharp, startling me into looking up as he intended. Our eyes met.

And I couldn't hide from him. He stood as if naked before me, and I couldn't do less than uncover in return. He read my face in silence and I knew he saw my love, but he saw my fear, too, and the obstinate withholding of myself which had become second nature to me over the course of my life. I gave myself to no one. I let no one really touch me. It was safer that way. Now Napoleon wanted to touch me, to touch my innermost being, and I flinched from it as someone born and raised in darkness will flinch from the sun's rays. I knew, even as I did it, that in turning away Napoleon's love I was turning away joy, glory, life itself. I couldn't help it. I didn't mean to hurt Napoleon—I never wanted to hurt him. But he was asking too much of me. He was asking for something I couldn't give.

He sighed. "All right," he said gently, and kissed my forehead. It was as if one beam of that sunshine had penetrated my defenses, and I looked up at him miserably, wanting him not to be angry with me, wanting him not to withdraw one iota of the love he had just offered, despite my rejection. I didn't know what I wanted. I only knew what I didn't want. I didn't want to lose Napoleon, didn't want to see the faintest shade of a frown on his face. I had let him see more of me than anyone had—would he turn away from me now?

And he didn't, of course he didn't. Instead he leaned in and kissed me again, very softly, on the lips this time. It was over before I could react, and he drew back. "I love you, Illya," he said again. "I will love you until the day I die."

"Until death do us part," I said and couldn't have been more surprised if frogs had fallen from my mouth. He was looking hopeful again and I hated myself for raising false expectations after I had just made myself so clear. Because they were false expectations—weren't they?

"Yes. Till death do us part. All you have to do is let me know. Just call me, or email me, or... send a damn passenger pigeon and I'll come and take you home."

"Um..." I didn't know what to say. I had apparently agreed to something after all, and I wasn't even sure what. I needed this conversation to be over, so I could take it home and brood over it in privacy, go over every word, every nuance of tone, every flicker of expression on Napoleon's face. Every shade of my own responses. Then maybe I could make sense of it, understand it—and myself—a little better.

I never had made sense of it. Two years now, and nothing had changed. Napoleon didn't bring it up, but I knew he was waiting for me. He spoke to me, when we met, with great gentleness. He took me out to dinner at least once a week and it went the way it had always gone—we talked, and laughed, and were as easy with one another as we had ever been. Nothing could disrupt that evidently, not guns and violence and sudden death, not passion and love and frustration.

Because it was frustrating. I wanted Napoleon's touch more every time I saw him. I couldn't forget his lips on mine, the scent of him so suddenly and briefly in my nostrils. 'I love you' he had said, and he meant it. He had virtually proposed marriage to me, with his rather quaint recital of vows. Why was I saying no? When my body clamored for his touch, and my heart yearned for his embrace, why were we apart?

Because the price was too high. Napoleon would want all of me, as he was offering all of himself. And I couldn't do it. I gave myself to no one. I held myself aloof and inviolate, and I couldn't seem to change that even as I cursed myself for a fool.

Now I lay flat on my back, alone, in the blazing sun and all its warmth and brightness were entering my soul, cleansing and calming me. Because I was alone, I could open myself to it, accept its healing. And it was Napoleon who had given me this gift. He had arranged that I have sole use of this house, with its surrounding fields and woods, with its swimming pool, library and enormous canopied bed. I had come here straight from the hospital.

The very first thing I had done was swim, reveling in the caress of water against skin. Then I came out here to this meadow. What more did I need, besides water and air and sunshine, and the earth turning beneath me? For that little boy—my little boy—it was enough. More than enough. It was riches. It was happiness. All I needed was a pet wolf, to share my private kingdom. Why think of a human touch, of strong arms and gentle hands? Why... a deeper shadow passed over my closed eyelids and when I opened them I saw that great white clouds were piling up, towering higher and higher even as I watched them. The shadow came from their darkening undersides. Lightning flickered from within and I got up, brushed myself off and hurried back.

I was running by the time I entered the yard, running through a driving downpour. I used my key, and practically fell into the empty house.

Still alone, and the novelty has worn off. I have showered and gotten into pajamas. I made, and drank, tea. Now I stood at the window staring out at the pouring rain, the wind whipped trees. Thunder boomed, and lightning flashed. The air was pleasantly cooler now, and tomorrow was supposed to be beautiful. I could lie in the fields and walk in the woods as much as I pleased, and no one to trouble me.

Resting my forehead on the glass, I allowed myself to think of Napoleon. Because all this was due to him. 'Your splendid isolation', he had once called it, and had now ensured that it was—splendid, and comfortable—everything I might desire. Because Napoleon, who loved me, wanted to give me whatever I desired. Even when it went against what he thought was best for me. Even when it broke his heart.

I was breaking his heart. I had seen it in those brown eyes, when I had refused his offer to come home with him and be waited on hand and foot. Every time I said no, I broke his heart afresh. And mine, too.

I turned away from the window, and sank onto the sofa. I wanted Napoleon there so badly it was like a physical pain. Why was I so stubborn? Why did I continually refuse that which I wanted more than anything? And why was it all churning within me now? Tonight? Was it because of what had happened, this last mission? It had churned up everything else—I had thought about my uncle, and about my child self. It was still hard to sleep without dreaming of rough hands on me, of ropes and kicks and men's organs slamming into me. It wasn't just another form of torture after all. It couldn't be. Why was it still haunting me, if that was the case?

I shivered, brought my knees up to my chest, trying to warm myself. Wasn't it bad enough it had happened, without my having to think about Napoleon, too? About Napoleon and me? Why was it all churning together, like suds in a washing machine? One had nothing to do with the other... and then the churning stopped. Just as if someone had turned a switch, it stopped and for the first time I was able to look at it all clearly.

One had nothing to do with the other. Napoleon—if Napoleon and I were together, like that, it would have nothing to do with the rape and torture of Thrush, nor would it have anything to do with my uncle's sadism. Of course it wouldn't. I knew that. I knew Napoleon. He would... it would be... another wave of longing for him swept over me, burying me fathoms deep. I put my head down on my drawn up knees. It would be wonderful. Napoleon would be a skillful and considerate lover, I knew that already and furthermore Napoleon loved me, so he would exert himself to make it good for me. I could even tell Napoleon—of course I could tell him—that what had just happened to me was making me nervous about it, a little, and furthermore that what had happened to me long ago had always made me edgy about it. I could tell Napoleon all of that and he would—he would do everything in his power to make up for it, to make up for it all.

How clear all the issues looked, hanging there in suspension, then they fell into a heap, an ash heap. I had turned away from Napoleon, had accepted this expensive house and everything that went with it and refused what Napoleon really wanted to give me. How could I call him now, and tell him I'd changed my mind? And was it really as simple as that? Did all my complex mesh of emotions surrounding Napoleon really come down to something as trite as old abuse and lingering fears? What about the rest of it, the feeling that Napoleon would ask too much of me, would ask for everything and leave me nothing of my own?

But the truth is I have already given Napoleon everything. Look at me, sitting here wretched because Napoleon isn't here. If Napoleon were here—oh, if he were. He would be holding me now—not to mention cooking me dinner. My stomach growled at the thought, and I had to give a reluctant snort of laughter at myself.

Getting up, I went into the kitchen and surveyed the well stocked cupboards. But the thought of the effort involved made me tired. I'd have cereal in the morning, and that would be fine. Turning, I went into the bedroom.

It was a beautiful room, and the bed was enormous. It was inviting, but I couldn't help thinking of how much better it would be if Napoleon were here. He would draw back the covers and get in first, then I would follow, be pulled up next to his hard, strong body. A frisson of desire went through me at the image, making me shiver. I drew back the covers myself, and there lay a pen.

Not just any pen. I stared at it. My old communicator pen, long since turned in. How... but I knew how, and knew, too, who would be at the other end. Just in case, I could almost hear him say. Just in case you change your mind. Because Napoleon never gave up, Napoleon never admitted defeat, and Napoleon had been in pursuit of me for a long time now. In pursuit of the life he saw for us, the life he had described for me so many times I could see it too. Why—why was I running still? I could stop running, if I chose. I could let Napoleon catch me, at long last, could turn and welcome him home. And it would have nothing to do with the other thing, with the grabbing and the hitting and the pain. Nothing at all.

I opened the communicator, and saw it was set as a two way now. I hesitated for one more moment. What was Napoleon doing tonight? What might I be interrupting? And he was many hours away, in Manhattan. What did I expect him to do, drop everything and... "Napoleon?"

"Illya." My name sounded like a prayer on his lips, a prayer of thanksgiving, and I closed my eyes in thankfulness of my own.

"I was wrong. I've been wrong all this time. And I changed my mind. I wish—I wish you were here right now."

"I'm on my way."

"But..." and that was all. Napoleon had turned off the receiver and I might as well go to bed . It would take time for Napoleon to arrange to be off work, and then it was a long trip. I sighed with mingled regret for the lost hours and anticipation of his arrival, and went into the bathroom.

It was barely half an hour later when a familiar knock came at the front door. I was laughing even before I got there, because it was so typical of him in its very unexpectedness. I was still laughing as I opened up to see him standing on the front porch, laughing too.

"Where were you?" I held the door for him and he came in, shaking raindrops off his jacket as he did so.

"Staying at a motel off the Interstate. Thirty minutes, door to door. I timed it this morning." Then he squared his shoulders and looked at me soberly. "Illya?"


"I have to know—I can't get my hopes up again for nothing. I think it might kill me this time."


"I just want to be sure..." then he stopped. Peered at me again. "Did you say yes?"

"Yes, Napoleon. Yes to everything. I'm sorry that it took me so long, and..." then I was in Napoleon's arms, and Napoleon was kissing me.

I always knew Napoleon would be a good kisser, I thought as thought faded. All those women... then there was nothing but the warmth of Napoleon's lips on mine, the strength of the arms around me, the solid heat of his body against me. I pressed closer, holding Napoleon, kissing him back, greedy for it suddenly as if I could never have enough, as if I wanted—everything.

Everything. I stiffened a little because I hadn't yet said any of the things I wanted to say, and Napoleon lifted his head. "Illya?"

"This last mission," I said, needing to get it out. "What happened—it was bad."

"I know."

He did know. He'd seen me. I remembered the shock on his face as he bent over me, the anger. "And when I was young, my uncle..."

"I know," he said again. "I've seen your file."

"So you've always known.." It was enormously reassuring. He'd always known, and he loved me anyway. "I wasn't sure."

"Waverly felt that I should know.

"Well, it makes me uncomfortable to think about f..." I stumbled over the word, the one they had used, and my face felt hot with remembered shame. "Doing that again. Even though it's you. I just—I'm sorry. I don't mean to insult you, or hurt your feelings, and I don't want you to think that I think —" Napoleon kissed me again, stopping the flood of words and I subsided, relieved. Napoleon understood what I meant, I didn't need to keep explaining myself. Napoleon always understood me. His lips were warm and soft now, not demanding, not urging mine apart, speaking his love as clearly as if he'd said the words aloud.

"I would imagine it's too soon for intercourse anyway," he said, using that word out loud as if it were the right word, the only word. It was reassuring, and I rubbed my cheek against his shoulder in response. That was true. The doctor had said—I didn't remember the number of weeks but there would be another physical between now and—whenever, so we couldn't do that anyway. Not that Napoleon would press it on me if I didn't want to. I knew that. And I knew, too, that at some point I probably would want to. Already it was getting hard to think, and already my body was responding to his. Our erections rubbed cozily one against the other in our close embrace, and involuntarily my hips moved forward. Napoleon made a choked sound and reached down, cupped my buttocks with both hands, holding us together. It was a bolt of pure pleasure and I grabbed Napoleon in my turn, trying to get closer. He shook his head.

"This isn't the plan," he protested and tried to move back but I clung harder, tighter and then he groaned, pressed me up against the wall and we were moving together, gasping incoherent endearments into one another's hair, hands and arms gripping tight, bruisingly tight. When his mouth came down on mine again it was my tongue that urged his lips apart and when his tongue met mine we both cried aloud, movement increasing to a frenzy. I called his name, and he called mine, our names intermingled in our open mouths and then I crumpled against him, all strength gone and he held me up, braced me against the wall and leaned on me in his turn.

It was a long time before I could speak. "So," I finally gasped against his neck. "What was the plan?"

"Plan? I—oh." He laughed. "Doomed to failure. For one thing it was based on false assumptions."

"Oh?" My legs were shaking and my pants were sticky but I wouldn't have suggested moving for the world. I wanted to hear what Napoleon had to say. "What assumptions?"

"I thought you'd be nervous about it, and that I'd have to woo you, coax your body into responding to me. Soothe your fears." He laughed again, but I thought there was a trace of regret there. "I was going to take my time, concentrate one hundred percent on your pleasure. Learn your body inch by inch, show you that passion is about tenderness too. Show you—and learn for myself—the difference that love can make. Instead—well, wait a minute. What have we here?" He wriggled one hand between us to caress me there, where there was a definite stirring. Napoleon stroked it and I shivered so violently I would have fallen if Napoleon hadn't had me against the wall. "You like the sound of that?" Napoleon said, and the regret was gone. His voice was deeper, and now his organ was stirring too.

"Yes," I whispered. "I do. No one has ever cared in the least about my pleasure, Napoleon. There were no fears for you to soothe because I couldn't possibly be afraid of you. I trust you. But I'd love to learn about all those things—tenderness, and love..." I put both arms around his neck, and he stroked my sides under my shirt. I shivered again. "Please."

For answer he dropped his hands, took one of mine, and led me into the bedroom. The covers were still folded down, just as I had left them on finding the communicator. He smiled at sight of them, and drew me into an embrace again. "Were you surprised when you saw it?"

"Yes. And glad. I was missing you terribly."

"I was missing you too." We sat on the edge of the bed, still wrapped up together, and sank down onto the mattress.

I was right, I reflected a few minutes later, while I could still put words to my thoughts. Napoleon wanted everything from me. He was taking everything now, exploring every part of my body with hands, fingers, lips and tongue. Shock after shock went through me, each new sensation an astonishment, the accumulation rendering me unable to do anything but twist helplessly under Napoleon's sure hands, open myself to his knowing tongue, to his lips, pressing soft kisses everywhere. It was shocking, too, to hear my own voice crying out again, and again. I writhed and panted, increasingly desperate for the release that Napoleon simultaneously held out and withheld. So this is how it can be, I thought, clutching at Napoleon's hair as he pressed deep kisses into my belly, each kiss a little lower, just a little. I tried to push his head down, desperate for what I knew was coming, his mouth on my aching organ. It was something I'd never experienced, not from the receiving end at any rate, and now it was going to happen. It was going to happen, and that was where I would find my release. But I wanted more than that. I wanted everything too, so I sent my hands exploring again, finding Napoleon's hip, his buttocks, pulling at him frantically, turning my head, seeking—and finding.

Napoleon was enormous in my mouth, swelling larger as I took him in. I was hungry for it, as hungry for his release as I was for my own. Then Napoleon, who had frozen in place for a moment, shifted position and drew me into his mouth too.

My cry sounded like one of agony and if it hadn't been smothered in his own flesh Napoleon might have heard it, and stopped. And if he stops now, I thought dazedly, I'll die. I'll die if he stops... but Napoleon didn't stop. He sucked me hard, warm tongue caressing me and that felt so good I did the same, and this time it was Napoleon who made a guttural sound.

We were joined then, my pleasure, his pleasure, one and the same. His arms were around my hips, holding me immobile and that was good, that was very good so I grabbed onto him and that was good too, him all the way down my throat now just as I was in his. Release came in a series of violent waves and I was screaming then I was swallowing, screaming and swallowing, his hips bucking so it was hard to hold on. We thrashed as one in the tangled covers for what seemed an endless time, riding the waves together.

Finally the ocean quieted and we floated with the current. He slipped from my mouth, and I pressed a kiss on the tip. He chuckled, a sound I felt as well as heard, and lifted his head. "Who's up by the top of the bed?" he asked and I looked around.

"Me," I answered and he turned, wrestling with the sheet to pull it up over us. He put both arms around me and I laid my head on his shoulder, kissed the skin nearest my lips. It tasted of salt, and I kissed it again.

He kissed my temple, and I could feel his lips curve into a smile as he felt my pulse racing there. His own heart was pounding so hard I could see it, shaking his whole body. But it slowed as we lay there, and in his embrace I relaxed, too. It was easy to relax here, in the strength and warmth of Napoleon's love.

"I love you, Illya," he said then, as if from the very edge of sleep, and I managed to get even closer.

"I love you too, Napoleon," I answered, and knew he heard me because he patted me, once, before his hand went still and his body grew lax. I closed my eyes, unutterably content, and as I floated away on sleep's undertow I caught a flash of blond hair. Far above me, out over the ocean, that little boy was flying, high as the clouds, high as the stars, high as love itself.

THE BEST LAID PLANS - the second of two companion stories

"Solo, you need help?" The question was thrown through the open cell door by John Smathers, one of the agents leading the assault on this Thrush satrap.

"He needs a doctor," I said, without looking around.

"I'll pass it on." He was gone without waiting for an answer, and I turned back to Illya.

His face was unmarked. That, in contrast to the havoc that had been wrought on the rest of his body, made my first quick check of his vitals seem strangely surreal. His torso, back and abdomen were a mass of bruising and swelling; red angry welts crisscrossed his skin. Bruises mottled both arms, and the ligature marks where I had cut the cord binding his wrists together were open and bleeding. His legs too were marred—boot prints from the look of them. Illya had been stomped and kicked, punched and flogged, but his face was untouched.

They wanted him recognizable, that was obvious. They were having their fun with him, and knowing their enemy only added to the fun. Especially in this case.

Two years, since we had been reassigned, two years since the fieldwork was supposedly ended for us both, and yet here we were. Thrush didn't forget, although it seemed someone had forgotten, just what Illya Kuryakin was made of. No one had to tell me Illya hadn't talked, despite the beatings, despite the shock of unexpected capture and imprisonment. Despite the rapes.

I checked him over, my hands moving along his limbs, carefully flexing his fingers, feeling his feet for warmth, pinching them once, sharply, for reaction. When he jerked them away from me I could have cheered. Nothing broken, as best I could tell. I went over him again, pressing harder now on his belly and chest, probing for internal injuries. I didn't find any, but that didn't mean they weren't there. Considering what had been done to him, it would be surprising if they weren't.

I wasn't really part of this mission at all. I had attached myself to it, and no one thought to question my addition to the roster. I was here because Illya was here, and someone in the complex machinery that was UNCLE's plan had to be looking out for Illya first. Too often a prisoner was killed as soon as an attack began. Or was killed later—accidentally or otherwise—in the ensuing mayhem. Everyone else on our team had a specific job to do. So I did some planning of my own, and went in with the advance force.

I had seen Illya through the window of the interrogation room they were using, saw what they were doing and a pure, hot fury engulfed me. Waving the rest of the team ahead I blew the door off its hinges and came in shooting. The one who had been bent over Illya died before finishing what he had begun. The threesome standing around watching and, presumably, waiting their turn died immediately after. The silence in the little room was deafening, but only in contrast to that fusillade of bullets. Outside, in the corridors beyond, above and below us, came the roar of small arms fire, the screams of dying men, the sharp concussions of grenades.

Illya was bound across a bench, arms fastened behind him, legs tied to the supports. Blood and semen, both fresh and old—days old, I thought—were smeared on his buttocks and thighs. I had to force myself to move carefully, not to let my anger into my touch.

I untied him, because I couldn't evaluate any injuries in his current position, and laid him out flat on the floor. His body lacked the boneless quality of true unconsciousness, but he was unresponsive to my voice, or the sharp taps on his shoulder. His eyes were closed, his face serene—and untouched.

I had just finished my second check and was groping for my radio when he moaned. There was so much suffering in the sound I could hardly bear it. Leaning over him, I called his name and his eyes opened. As they met mine a wave of relief flooded me. I didn't know what I had expected, but Illya's eyes were clear and sane, and he knew me. I saw by his face that I was showing too much, too much of the horror I felt, and I abandoned my search for the radio. Telling him not to move, I shouted for the medic.

"Napoleon." His voice was so weak I could barely hear him, and I leaned in.

"Yes?" His lips were colorless and his eyes weren't so clear anymore—shock, he was going into shock and no wonder. I shouted for the doctor again.

"Is it over?" His voice shook a little as he said it and I took his hand, wanting to offer what comfort I could.

"Yes, Illya. It's over." I swallowed at the open relief in his eyes, the trust. If I said it was over, it was. That certainty showed itself in the way his body relaxed, in the very small smile he found for me. "We're going to chopper you out as soon as the doctor checks you." I wanted to shout for the doctor again, but Illya spoke first.

"Are you coming with me?" His hand trembled in mine.

"Do you want me to?" Even in these circumstances, my heart leapt at the thought that Illya wanted me with him. But he was looking away, towards the open door and the sound of the mopping up operation now going on. He bit his lip, and I squeezed his hand, knowing just what he was thinking. "They don't need me," I said. It was the truth, and I was glad I had set things up that way. "If you do, you've got me."

"I need you," he whispered, and I swallowed again. "I need you, Napoleon. We both do."

"What?" I leaned in even closer, so close that our breaths mingled. But Illya didn't see me, or anything at all—anything in this room, at any rate. His eyes had gone very far away, and then they rolled back in his head and he passed out. My shout for the medic was frantic now, and when they appeared, two very competent young men, I moved back enough to give them access, but I never let go of Illya's hand.

Illya looked heartbreakingly young, lying there in the hospital bed, in his restless sleep. And heartbreakingly beautiful, too. I had always thought so, had always been caught by that perfect bone structure, that pure, clean line of jaw and chin, those sharp, elegant cheekbones. When Illya gave me that sly sideways look, mouth quirking in the way he had, I—it was disgraceful, how little control I had over the way I felt. I tried to hide it, when we were field partners—even from him, I tried to hide it and I never knew how well I succeeded. I certainly hadn't fooled our enemies, not for very long.

How many times had we been in this situation—one of us in a hospital bed, the other hovering, waiting, for however long a time was allowed? Certainly I would never have had the luxury of these daily, extended visits back in the old days—not so far removed in time, but seemingly part of another life now, so completely had mine, and his—ours—changed. But we usually managed at least one visit, Illya and I—and to give him credit, Mr. Waverly was generally the one who arranged it. Waverly knew, how it was between Illya and me—sometimes I think he knew better than either of us did. He had only spoken to me about it directly once, after Illya had been held over my head in a particularly horrific way.

"This is not the first time our enemies have used you and Mr. Kuryakin against one another," he had said. "It is only the most blatant."

"The mission was successful." I heard the rasp in my voice and added, somewhat belatedly, "Sir. We won." Despite the cost. The cost to me, personally, was my own business.

"You are only making things difficult for yourselves," Waverly said gently and I looked at him in surprise. "I trust your professionalism, Mr. Solo—both of you. But you should at least consider it."

"Duly considered. Thank you, sir."

"You may go, Mr. Solo. I wouldn't want to keep your current lady friend waiting, whoever she may be."

"She's used to it," I said. After a rough mission I couldn't be bothered with wooing and winning—or losing. At such times I called women I knew, women I was already friendly with, women who wanted it just as much as I did. And Angela, the woman I had called, knew me well.

Now I looked at Illya's sleeping face, in that hospital bed. When I had heard of his capture, it nearly drove me insane. Missing—missing—how could Illya be missing? This wasn't supposed to happen anymore. If only Illya weren't so stubborn, if only he had accepted one of my many offers, then he wouldn't be taking a subway from an unsecured apartment in Greenwich Village. Instead he'd be under my own, higher level of security, living in my penthouse apartment, being driven anywhere he wanted to go in a company car. He'd be safe. I laughed at myself, a painful sound. Safe. A fantastic idea for anyone in our profession—indeed, for anyone anywhere.

But he was safe enough now. For this moment, sleeping in UNCLE's own hospital ward, with me sitting right beside him, he was safe enough. I brushed his bangs back from his forehead. It would do. For tonight, it would do just fine.

After a while I fell asleep in my chair and slept the night through, waking when they woke Illya for this and that, then watching him until he slept again before sleeping myself. The next morning I pulled the chair closer to his bed and watched him some more, unashamedly yearning over him, wanting—wanting so much.

It had been two years now, since my first, admittedly clumsy but perfectly sincere, proposal. Illya had said no, then maybe. He had admitted that he loved me. That terrified him, so he withdrew to his own thoughts and feelings, whatever those were. I knew the idea of us being together drew him—and frightened him. He always seemed poised between advance and retreat, and I walked the edge, sensing that the wrong move on my part would push him away, and hoping that the right one—if I could find it, if I could ever find it—might bring him to me, bring us together at last.

And then Thrush had reared up and snatched him, reminding us all that a few words changed here and there on your job description meant nothing to them. Reassignment was no guarantee of a peaceful life. I wasn't the only one in UNCLE who was shocked and angry. And they were afraid, too, because of who Illya was, and what he knew. The rescue mission had been prompt and forceful—and effective. Now here Illya lay, and when he woke up our sad pas de deux would start all over again.

I wanted him to come home with me, had already prepared the guest room for him so he wouldn't feel pressured into sleeping with me—pressured into anything. I never wanted to pressure Illya, never wanted him to do anything he didn't want to do. If Illya came to me—when, I corrected myself sternly, because anything else was intolerable—when Illya came to me I wanted it to be because, like me, he couldn't stay away.

Illya knew how I felt, what I wanted. I had promised him all the time he needed, and I meant it. But it had been so long—and then Illya had been taken from me and almost died. He had almost died, and we would never have been together the way I wanted us to be, the way I knew it would be. It would be the kind of story book ending everyone wanted and hardly anyone got. We could get it, Illya and I—we could have it all. I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. All that remained was for Illya to come to know it too.

He stirred and I leaned closer, anxiously watching for signs of pain, or... then his eyes opened and I was looking into those blue depths, falling into them, drowning without a struggle, drowning in bliss.

Illya loved me. Just as he'd said, he loved me. I was looking into his soul, in those first moments of awakening, and his feelings were laid bare. There was pleasure at the sight of me, relief that I was there, and something more—a strong, sweet yearning that matched my own. I swallowed, and then there was a brisk tap at the door. It swung open and Illya's doctor came in, with two nurses and a lab tech. Illya blinked, and when he looked at me again the depths had closed, his eyes were blue and beautiful and completely nonrevealing. I smiled and moved back, out of the way.

They surrounded the bed and I stretched, decided I needed a shower as well as a change of clothes. "See you later," I said and started for the door.



"I'm hungry, and the food here is worse than usual."

I laughed, because if Illya was hungry and complaining he was definitely getting better. "I'll keep that in mind."

I did. If Illya was getting better, then it was time to discuss arrangements, time to ask him—again—to come home with me. I would insist—I would plead with him, if need be. If not now, when? I was terribly afraid that it would be never. Illya would return to his self imposed solitary confinement, and next time life took a bad turn one of us might wind up dead. I had waited long enough. Now it was time to push—just a little, and very gently—but a definite push was called for.

So I pushed, and Illya said no. Of course he said no. I invited him back to my apartment repeatedly over the long days of his recovery, and he said no. I downright begged him, but he said no, mouth set obstinately, eyes avoiding mine, body stiff and rejecting. Rejecting me—again. Rejecting the shared future I saw for us—again. "I want to be alone," he said once too often and I told him he wasn't Greta Garbo in the first place, and that that hadn't worked out so well for her in the second place. He said how did I know how it worked out for her and I admitted that I didn't really, and he said well then and folded his arms. Infuriating—and so endearing that I had to clench my fists to keep from reaching for him, had to grind my teeth to keep from spilling out more useless words. Pleas, endearments, reason—all met the same fate when flung into that unyielding face, those wonderful eyes. Oh, I was in a sorry state all right, and I knew it. But then he was looking at me with that strangely awkward anxiety that spoke of his insecurity and his fear, his need of me which he so persistently denied. Illya would cut my heart out one minute, and flinch away from my potential anger the next. But I wasn't angry. It only enthralled me further. I could only ever reassure him, touch him if he would let me, smile at him with all the love I felt for him in my eyes, absurdly glad when he would relax, return my smile.

I know how it sounds. I can't help it. I fell in love with Illya so many years ago that now I can't even put my finger on when it happened. And Illya fell in love with me too, somewhere in those tumultuous days—the intensity of our mutual desire fairly crackling between us, and the depth of our mutual commitment forming the bedrock of our everyday lives. Both of our lives, and if Illya weren't so damn stubborn he would admit it. But he held me off, always.

I knew about Illya's past—the early abuse, the ambiguous circumstances of his escape. Alexander Waverly had laid the file on my desk one afternoon early in our partnership and waited while I read it. When I had finished I looked up at him, and didn't care that what I felt showed. He didn't say a word, just took the folder from my hand and left.

Illya himself never mentioned it, so neither did I. If all of that had left scars, they didn't show at work—which was all that mattered right then. I felt only admiration for Illya's self control, for his courage, for the fact that he had held onto his essential core of integrity. I admired him enormously, liked him tremendously, and then, one day when I wasn't looking, I slipped over into love. My life changed forever on that day, whenever it was—not on the outside, where I continued dating, continued my hard track career climb, but on the inside. And once the fieldwork was over my weekly dates—because they were dates, I wouldn't call them anything less. I was courting Illya with everything I had in me. Those dates with Illya were the most important things in my life.

It was in the spirit of that courtship that I wanted Illya to come home with me now. I wanted to surround him with luxury and comfort. I wanted to cook his meals, listen if he wanted to talk, sit in companionable silence with him if he didn't. I wanted to give Illya whatever it was he needed to recover. Illya, my old partner, my dearest friend. Illya, my heart's desire.

"Napoleon, you know I appreciate it, don't you?" he pleaded, sitting in the wheelchair, ready to leave the hospital. He looked as wounded as I felt. "I told you, it's nothing against you. I just—I need to be by myself right now. I need solitude, and peace, and no one looking at me or bothering me, feeling sorry for me and worrying about me."

He might as well have slapped me. Because he meant me, he must because no one else was hanging around at his bedside, blatantly worrying about him. He stopped, looking stricken. "Not—not you, he stammered. "I didn't mean you. I like it that you worry about me." He looked up at me, biting his lip, eyes openly asking me not to be offended, not to be angry—not to be hurt. Because Illya didn't want to hurt me, I knew that. He didn't want to lose me, either. I knew that too.

"Please," I said finally. "For the last time, Illya—please come home with me."

"No. Thank you."

"Then let me do something for you." Adroitly, I switched to what I thought of as alternate plan B. I always had a fallback plan, it was one of the secrets of my success. "I have the key to a private house within a Security Level One enclave. It has five acres of trails, and fields, and woods—there's a swimming pool and... and cable TV. If you insist on being by yourself right now at least let me make you as comfortable and safe as possible." And when I saw a no forming on his lips I pressed harder. "For my sake, Illya. I'll sleep better knowing you're there." Then, trying to lighten the moment, I added "I can't just leave work at the drop of a hat to rescue you every day, you know."

He smiled. "I know. You—you really want to do this for me?"


"All... all right." He flushed, looked down. "Thank you." He looked up then and I was caught all over again, caught by that shy sweetness that he only ever showed around me. I saw it as something incredibly precious, fragile and beautiful—offered to me in trust. I wanted to cherish it—and him. All of that must have been in my face because he reached out unexpectedly and touched my hand, fingers light and tentative, as if I might at any moment strike them away.

"You're always so good to me, Napoleon," he whispered. "Please don't ever think I don't see it, or that it's not the best thing in my life. I wish I could—maybe..." he stood up, moved closer and I was shaking now, with desire, with the effort needed to restrain that desire. He lifted those blue eyes to my face and for a moment I thought it was going to happen after all, he was going to trust me enough to reach out to me and I would draw him into an embrace. I would kiss him but softly, gently—the whole thing would be soft and gentle because Illya had suffered terribly as a child, and now again at the hands of Thrush. Illya would no doubt be nervous, afraid even, and it would be my responsibility—my delight—to remove that fear, to bring Illya along into pleasure by the easiest, sweetest route possible. For a moment I really thought... then Illya stepped back and my hopes were crushed once more. It never got easier, and I closed my eyes against the blow. "Thank you," Illya said again, and sat back down in the wheelchair.

"You're more than welcome," I answered and then the nurse came in to take him down to the lobby. "A car is waiting for you," I told him. "I took the liberty of having some of your things packed, and they're in the trunk now. Anything else you need..."

"I'm sure I'll be fine, Napoleon. Thank you again." He was looking me up and down, keeping the nurse waiting without even acknowledging her presence. "You were pretty sure you'd be sending me somewhere in that car, weren't you."

I felt my face turn red. Only Illya could do this to me, reduce me to stammering platitudes such as I was now uttering. "Well, I didn't think it could hurt, and one way of the other you'd need a change of clothes...."

"And if I had just gone home? In a cab?"

"No harm done," I answered defensively and he laughed a little. I relaxed, and smiled at him. "If you want me there," I said finally, as the nurse took the wheelchair handles and pointedly turned Illya towards the door. I held it open. "Call me."

"All right."

"Promise me."

"I promise."

"I'll be waiting," I said and let the door close before he could tell me not to.

I couldn't let it rest. I had to keep pushing. If not now, when? So I chartered a helicopter and flew to the house myself, while Illya was en route by car. I checked everything thoroughly, made sure the cupboards and refrigerator were stocked, then went into the bedroom. Carefully I pulled back the covers on the king sized bed.

If Illya were missing me at all, if I had made even a dent in that obdurate reclusiveness, surely it would be at bedtime. He would be thinking, maybe, of how different things would be if he had said yes earlier. Maybe he was as unhappy about our situation as I was, and didn't know what to do about it. Maybe he would change his mind. I took the little communicator pen out of my inside jacket pocket, and laid it carefully on the sheet. I had creatively appropriated it from the storage facility, and programmed it so it only went two ways—and I was at the other end. Feeling reckless—Illya would see the pen and know, among other things, that I had been here—I drew the covers back up, tucked them into place. How would he react? Would he be angry, at a perceived intrusion? Would it only alarm him more, make him retreat from me further? Or... I left, locking up behind me, and went to my motel.

That too was part of the plan. What was the point in asking Illya to call me if I was hours away, in Manhattan? I had to be right on the scene, ready to knock at his door within—I checked my watch—thirty minutes of his call. And then—Illya, I thought and again that yearning swept me, taking my breath with it, making me weak with longing and desire. I would be so good to you. I would show you everything you ever missed out on, and I'd learn, too. You'd teach me, and I'd teach you and together—I set the pen on my bedside table, checking (for the fourth time) that it was operating properly, and propped myself against the cheap headboard. I opened my laptop. I would work, and I would wait. I almost wished I could pray, but I was not a religious man. I checked the communicator again—yes, all was in order at my end. It was up to Illya to decide about his.

The communicator beeped at ten twelve that night. I had practiced answering it more than once during the long afternoon and evening, had developed a smooth swoop that put the instrument in my hand and open just as my hand reached my mouth. But this time I knocked it off the bedside table, panicked that it would disconnect and make Illya feel I had hung up on him, leaned far over to get it and almost fell off the bed. But it was within reach now and I snatched it up, turned it on.

And then I couldn't speak. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Before I could clear my throat and try again, Illya's voice—sounding none too steady—came through. "Napoleon?"

"Illya." And it was a prayer after all, a prayer of thanksgiving.

"I was wrong," he said, and his voice firmed. "I've been wrong all this time. And I changed my mind. I wish —" he hesitated, and I held my breath. "I wish you were here right now."

"I'm on my way," I said, just as I had rehearsed, and turned off the communicator. I didn't want Illya to know how close I was. I wanted to surprise him because in that first moment I would see all I needed to see, know all I needed to know. I got in my car and roared onto the highway.

Illya was laughing when he opened the door and I laughed too, shaking raindrops off of my coat. I hadn't expected it to be pouring rain, but excellent tires on a well designed car kept me on schedule. He held the door for me and demanded, "Where were you?"

"Staying at a motel off the Interstate. Thirty minutes, door to door. I timed it this morning." I said all that in a rush, wanting to confess my preparations before he could accuse me of going behind his back again. Then I gathered all my courage together and faced him straight on. "Illya?"


"I have to know —" I stammered, came to a stop. Taking a deep breath I pushed ahead. "I can't get my hopes up again for nothing. I think it might kill me this time." I meant it. Another disappointment would be more than I could bear. Leaving Illya's door, driving back to the motel, back to the city, alone—I looked at him helplessly.

"Yes," he said again.

"I just want to be sure..." I stopped. Yes, Illya had said. But I didn't dare presume, so I asked him. "Did you say yes?"

"Yes, Napoleon." He looked at me very seriously. "Yes to everything. I'm sorry that it took me so long, and —" he couldn't finish because I had put both arms around him, pulled him close to me the way I'd always dreamed of doing, and kissed him.

I kissed Illya with everything I had held inside for so very long. I tried to say it all without words, speaking of love and desire, of tenderness and trust, and the aching need to cherish and be cherished in my turn. He answered me, kissing me fervently, and with an intensity I had not expected. For a long time we just stood there, kissing, and then he tensed up, a little. I had to know why, so I ended the kiss and looked at him. "Illya?" I said softly, because whatever it was I would fix it, would make it right.

"This last mission," he said, not meeting my eyes. "What happened—it was bad."

"I know," I answered softly, and he nodded. For a moment he looked up and I saw fear in his eyes—fear of me, and what I might say or do now, now that he was stripped of his defensive armor, and so terribly vulnerable to me. But he made himself go on. "And when I was young, my uncle..." he nearly choked on the words and I couldn't bear it.

"I know," I said again. "I've seen your file."

"So you've always known." He looked at me again, and the fear had gone. "I wasn't sure."

"Waverly felt that I should know."

"Well, it makes me uncomfortable to think about f..." he stopped, and blushed. I was enchanted all over again and wanted to kiss him some more, but thought it better to let him have his say out. "Doing that again. Even though it's you. I just—I'm sorry. I don't mean to insult you, or hurt your feelings, and I don't want you to think that I think —" I did kiss him then, because I was powerless not to, and felt him relax against me, the rush of words ended, his lips warming and softening under mine. I love you, I thought and tried to put that in my kiss. I thought of all the ways I loved Illya, and all the little things that showed me he loved me. I thought of how it would be, now we were together, and then I lifted my head again.

"I would imagine it's too soon for intercourse anyway," I said practically, and it was just as well that was off the table for a while. Let Illya relax, let me teach him all the other ways of finding and giving pleasure. It would be weeks before he was cleared for that, I was sure, and by then he would want it too. I would show him how good it could be, and there would be no thoughts of his uncle, or of Thrush. I would see to it. He rubbed his cheek against my shoulder, and it made my knees week.

Nothing else was weak, though. I was so aroused I could barely think but that was all right, because Illya was aroused too. The long repressed attraction was alive now, and he moaned. I could hear surprise in the sound, but passion was there too. He moved his hips against me, gasping. This was happening much faster than I had anticipated, and what had become of the plan? It was supposed to be easy, for Illya's sake. I reached for him, to slow things down and my hands closed on his waist, slid lower. I found myself squeezing instead of pushing him away, and he reciprocated with surprising enthusiasm.

Still I tried to stop myself, and I think I protested—I could hear my voice, saying something about the plan. I'd like to think I actually tried to back off although I'm not sure about that. But Illya only hung on harder, wrapping one leg around mine to get even closer and I groaned and pushed us against the wall. We clutched at each other, panting and gasping, and I could hear him calling my name. Nothing had ever given me such satisfaction and I cried his too, kissing him and crying aloud into his open mouth and then he went limp against me. I held onto him as best I could, leaning against him, both of us panting and sweaty.

I wondered if he'd regret it now, if it had roused fearsome memories for him, but when his voice came it was almost a purr of satisfaction. "So," he said and I knew it was all right before he went any further. "What was the plan?"

"Plan? I—oh." I laughed. "Doomed to failure. For one thing, it was based on false assumptions."

"Oh?" Illya snuggled closer to me and I closed my eyes, breathing the sweet scent of his hair. I have said I am not a religious man and that is the truth, but with every breath I was saying thank you, thank you, thank you. "What assumptions?"

I was embarrassed to say it out loud but he was looking at me as if he really wanted to know. "I thought you'd be nervous about it," I admitted, "and that I'd have to woo you, coax your body into responding to me. Soothe your fears." I could hear how ridiculous it sounded as I said it, and laughed to cover it. I went on, describing what I had wanted to do and then Illya's organ stirred again. I caressed it and Illya shuddered so violently I had to hold him up again. My power to arouse him aroused me more than before, more than I had dreamed possible. "You like the sound of that?" I said, and I wasn't embarrassed anymore. I knew what he was going to say before he said it, again, as so many times in our lives.

"Yes," he whispered. "I do. No one has ever cared in the least about my pleasure, Napoleon." He went on talking but for a moment I was so blinded by grief at his statement I couldn't listen. I could only hold him more tenderly, cup his face in my hands so I could look into his eyes—into his soul—as he spoke. "I'd love to learn about all those things," he was continuing and joy replaced grief like a breath of fresh air dispelling the morning fog. "Tenderness, and love..." he put both arms around my neck and I slid my hands up his sides, feeling him shiver. "Please," he said then and for answer I took one of his hands in mine and led him into the bedroom.

The covers were still folded down and it made me smile. I took him into my arms. "Were you surprised when you saw it?" I asked, and he nodded.

"Yes. And glad. I was missing you terribly."

"I was missing you too." I eased us down onto the mattress.

It had been a good plan, and I was grateful for this opportunity to carry it out. Illya was deliciously responsive and I reveled in every sigh, every moan, every move. I did all the things I had always wanted to do to him, and some I made up on the spot. Everything I did was well received, and before long he was writhing on the bed, twisting helplessly under my hands as I learned more and more about what he liked, and where and how he liked it. I felt I still had more to learn, could spend a lifetime learning it. I kissed Illya's belly, moving down but very slowly. Illya tangled his fingers in my hair, trying to push my head down faster and I let him, because that was my goal, Illya's cock in my mouth. How would that feel? I knew how it would feel to him—there's nothing like it. I wondered if he'd ever experienced it before. I thought about making him wait a little longer, just a little longer but then he was changing the plan again, pulling at my hips and my thighs, caressing my balls, drawing me into his mouth.

It shocked me to my core. I had been intent on giving pleasure, and now I was swamped by pleasure of my own. It was too much, way too much so I closed my mouth over him, wanting—needing to share it.

We clung to one another, and it was almost as if I were sucking myself, so precisely was every action mirrored back to me. I worked Illya with all the skill at my disposal, trying at one and the same time to make it last forever, and to finish it as soon as possible.

I have no idea how long we grappled there. I thought I could hear Illya screaming but maybe that was me. It didn't matter. We were one. We were one at the center of the inferno, one in paradise.

It took a long time for awareness to filter back in. I lay there panting, identifying each sensation as it slowly returned to me. The mattress under us, yes. The ceiling fan making shivery trails across our flesh. Illya's body in my embrace. I tightened my arms. He kissed the tip of my cock as it shrank into itself, away from him and I laughed softly. I wanted to see his face, so I propped myself up. "Who's at the top of the bed?" I asked and he shifted position.

"Me," he answered and I turned around, got myself situated beside him, covered us with the sheet against the chill of sweat evaporating from skin. He hugged me, put his head on my shoulder and kissed me, kissed me again. I pressed my lips to his temple, smiling at the way his heart was pounding. Mine was too, but slower now, as the delicious languor of afterglow filled me. I gentled Illya against me, wanting him to relax too. He did, body melting into mine.

"I love you, Illya," I whispered and he moved even closer to me.

"I love you too, Napoleon," he said and I patted his back, feeling unutterably grateful that we had come together at last. All my plans had worked out, all my dreams had come true, Illya and I would spend the rest of our lives making one another happy. The rest of our lives, together.

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