But No Cigar
My thanks to Tafizgurl, Myredk9s and Georgiamagnolia for their Beta and feedback with this and to Sparky who initiated the challenge to begin with.
There's a fine, fine line
Between a lover and a friend.
And there's a fine, fine line between
Reality and pretend.
And you never know till you reach the top
If it was worth the uphill climb.
There's a fine, fine line between
Love and a waste of your time.
(Ave Q—There's a Fine, Fine Line)
"So, how long will you be gone this time?"
Napoleon Solo glanced over his shoulder and smiled at the blond lounging on his bed. "Not long, but longer than you'd like, I suspect." He brushed his graying hair off his forehead, patting it into place, and watched his lover flop back onto the waterbed. It seemed like just yesterday they had gotten together, not years. Where had the time gone? He smiled as the man starting humming Sloop John B as he rode the waves.
"I just wish you didn't have to go at all." He chuckled. "And I wish I didn't sound like a whiny little girl when I said that. I just miss you, you know." He smoothed the sheets still warm from their love making. "This old bed is awfully big without you here to fill it."
"I know, but work being what it is, UNCLE waits for no man." Napoleon checked his watch and reached for his jacket. "And I'm going to be late if I don't get a move on." He walked quickly to the bed and kissed the man lounging there. "I'll miss you."
"Well, yeah, since you sawed the sight off your rifle..." Then. "Be careful, Napoleon. Love you."
"I will, Yuri, promise. Cross my heart. Love you too."
He slipped out of the penthouse apartment and immediately two Section Three men flanked him, walking with him to the elevator. There had been days long since passed in which he would have argued that he didn't need babysitters, didn't need anyone to take care of him, but with the responsibility of command came all the trappings, good and bad.
The ride to the airport was smooth and without incident, except for the normal tie up of traffic. He was waived through security and walked to his gate. UNCLE's jet sat expectantly, awaiting his beck and call. At times, it was good to be the king. These days, he only traveled first class.
"You don't have to go you know." The statement caught him, jarred a memory. The speaker was a young woman talking to an older one not that far from him. Years ago, it had been a younger version of himself speaking to his partner.
"You don't have to go," he'd said, holding Illya by his too thin shoulders. His partner, so typically at that time, refused to meet his eyes and stared into space past him, seeing who knew what demons.
"Yes, Napoleon, I do." Illya's voice was just a memory to him now. Nearly twenty years ago, he'd stood at a gate, watching his former partner for any sign of hesitation or regret. Instead the man sat quietly, his hands hidden from view by black gloves, the leather hiding his twisted fingers from the world. "I'm no good to UNCLE, Napoleon. I can't even tie my own shoes anymore. I have to do this."
"Because I can't move on if I stay here. I need to not be here anymore." The loudspeaker called his flight and the Russian stood. "I'll miss you, my friend. I wouldn't have made it this far without you."
"You know where to find me. Give me a call and let me know you're okay."
And then he was gone, simply walked out of Napoleon's life, if not his heart and memory. Best of friends and then Illya suddenly cut the cord between them. Napoleon's calls went unreturned until the number finally went out of service. All the cards and letters he sent came back marked 'Return to Sender ' in Illya's now twisted, barely legible handwriting. After awhile, he just stopped trying and slowly life filled the gaping wound left by Illya's absence.
Being with Yuri had helped. He'd vowed to make a break with the man, but instead he found himself seeking Yuri out, at first just to talk, but that blossomed into a friendship and now he was Napoleon's near constant companion. It came as a bit of a shock when Napoleon learned Yuri's real name was, in fact, Irakli. Still, Napoleon never called or thought of him as anything else other than Yuri. It was as if the creation of Yuri was his alone and he liked it that way.
The Georgian was easy going, street smart, and quick to laugh. Moreover, he made Napoleon laugh a lot, which was a balm for his nerves after he took over from Waverly. He came to rely upon Yuri's support and advice more and more as the years sped by. Yet even with that, they were never as close as he and Illya had been. That friendship had been one in a million. There were days even now when Napoleon turned to say something to his partner, only to remember at the last second that Illya wasn't there anymore.
The London conference went as smoothly as those things are likely to go. THRUSH, having been effectively dismantled years earlier, was no longer a threat. Their enemies were less organized these days and therefore, harder to track. Terrorists, hijackers, bombers, more elusive, less single-minded; it made his job both easier and harder at the same time. Napoleon lamented every victim who fell because they didn't react fast enough and celebrated the lives they saved when they did. Mostly he just felt old, at least until he got home and Yuri was there to meet him with a cold drink, a warm kiss, a joke and a ready smile. And Napoleon could forget about the rest of the world and immerse himself in his own little corner of it.
But Yuri wasn't here and Napoleon was restless. He paced his hotel room until he could stand it no longer. It took a bit to slide past his guards without them realizing it, but he was an UNCLE agent after all, albeit a slightly older and less nimble one. In the olden days, he'd have simply scaled down the building using whatever he could get his hands on to make his way. These days, he preferred a tried and true method, out, up, in, and down. It took him a few minutes to re-rig the window alarm, but Napoleon looked on it as good practice. He went out onto the fire escape, up one flight, in through an access window, and down the elevator.
Once on the street, he signaled for a taxi.
"Where to, mate?"
"Do you know someplace where the martinis are very cold and the music is very hot?" Napoleon disguised his voice just in case, but it was obvious the man didn't recognize him.
"Sure, got just the spot, sport. It'll be packed tonight."
"That will be even better."
He paid the driver and gave him a sizable tip before taking the opportunity to study the establishment at which he'd been dropped.
Like so many buildings in London, it was narrow and was made of brick. The building itself looked as if the architect had changed his mind a dozen times before it was completed.
The neon sign proclaimed it was "Out of the Cold" and Napoleon smiled at the double meaning, then he stepped inside. The driver was right, the place was full with people milling about, dancing, drinking and visiting. There was a group on stage playing some jazzy song and Napoleon felt the world starting to release a bit of its hold on him. He found a small table in the back, ordered, and settled in to just enjoy the ambiance and absorb the sheer explosion of life in the small club, letting it wash over him in waves.
He was halfway through his second martini when he happened to glance up at the stage. The trio there had been joined by a pianist and they were pounding out some half-remembered tune. The last time he'd heard that particular piece, it was New Year's and he'd convinced his well-lubricated partner to take a turn on the bar's piano. They'd closed the place down that night and Napoleon, in spite of a rollicking hangover the next day, had never felt so alive.
Then Napoleon sat up a little, studying the man handling the keyboard. The cut of the shoulders, the hair, it looked like... He shook his head ruefully. It couldn't be. Illya's hands had been effectively crippled; the doctors did what they could, but it wasn't much in the end. Yet, this guy... the hair was longer and a little darker, the waist thicker, but he could swear... but Illya couldn't... the last time Napoleon had seen him, Illya could barely feed himself, much less play a piano.
He signaled the hostess who came over quickly. She held her tray under her arm to keep from hitting anyone with it.
"Another round, handsome?"
"The guy at the keyboard?"
"Nicky, he's co- owner," she said, proudly. "Hot, isn't he?"
"Nicky?" Napoleon decided to go for broke. "Kuryakin?"
"Yeah, why do you ask?" Her attention was drifting around the room, checking her customers. Napoleon knew he needed to move quickly or lose her altogether.
"I think I know him, that's all."
"He breaks in five." She pointed to a curtained door. "Back through there."
Napoleon pushed through the curtain after the band had left the stage and folks were heading back to their tables, to the bar for drinks, or outdoors for some air.
"No, absolutely not, you look like a hooker." The man he thought was Illya was saying to a young girl as he approached. The young girl was dressed in a short skirt and a scoop neck, nearly-not-there blouse that was so very much the trend these days.
"I do not. This is what everyone is wearing. It's today, it's hot. I'm not going to look like a freak!"
"It's not happening. You want to go out, change. Otherwise, you have homework." The man's hand grabbed his forearm without really even seeing him, ordering. "You, tell her she looks like a hooker."
"Or at the very least a high priced call girl, when push comes to shove," Napoleon said and waited. A breath and then two and the head swiveled towards him, the blue eyes widened with surprise.
"Napoleon? Oh my God, is that you?" Illya grabbed him by the upper arms, his argument forgotten. "Is it really you?"
"I sort of figure that should be my line." Napoleon looked down at the scarred hands that held him. They were there, but they weren't. Nothing like the strong hands he remembered, hands capable of crushing a man's throat or holding his partner to keep him from bleeding out. These were more like sad substitutes for the real thing, but it didn't matter. Napoleon wrapped his arms around his long-lost friend and held on, choking back a sob that threatened to escape. Pulling back slightly, he wiped the corners of his eyes and studied the man again.
Illya's face had filled out, wrinkles crinkled the edges of his eyes and his mouth. His hair was longer and darker, but still the basic style he'd always worn, still longer than normal trends and bordering on the edge of untidiness.
Napoleon choked for a moment, running his fingers over Illya's face as if he still couldn't quite believe it. Then he reached down and took a hand. "What happened?"
"Long story, I got into an experimental program." Illya released Napoleon and grinned. "They aren't much to look at, but they work okay as long as I don't need to hold onto anything too hard."
"Da-a-ady I need to go. Everyone is waiting for me," the girl whined, drawing both men's attention.
"Daddy?" Napoleon's eyes widened.
"Another very long story, excuse me." He shook his head and pointed towards the ladies room. "You're only fourteen, go and change."
"You never let me have any fun. You've forgotten what it's like to be young."
"No, I remember exactly what it was like when I was young, go." The girl stormed off and Illya shook his head. "Short of locking her in her room for the next four years, I am out of ideas." He started to walk away, not bothering to see if Napoleon was following.
He led the way to a small office and gestured the other man in. "So it's been what, fifteen years?" He collapsed down into a chair, stretched out his legs and folded his hands politely on his lap.
"Closer to twenty."
"Doesn't seem possible." The phone rang and Illya glanced at it for a moment, then the flashing blue light held steady and he looked back at Napoleon. "Guess we must be having fun." He sat forward, poured something clear from a bottle and offered it to Napoleon.
"That's the rumor." He took the glass and sniffed, not surprised at the near lack of smell. He sipped, the vodka sliding down his throat so soft and easy. "Ah, the dangerous kind," he murmured with a half smile. "So what the hell happened, Illya? You left and I never heard word one. It was like you vanished."
"I did for awhile. I spent a good deal of time with my old friend, Comrade Vodka, unsuccessfully trying to drink myself into the grave. Thankfully, someone decided I was worth saving and dragged my sorry ass out of the gutter and into a recovery program. While I was drying out, I heard about this experimental research they were doing with hand injuries and figured I had nothing to lose... and here I am."
"Wait, you're a recovering alcoholic and you have an open bottle of vodka on your desk?"
"As a reminder of what it took to make me who I am now. I haven't had a drink in over sixteen years." He sighed. "Although having a teenager, the prospect is getting more attractive each day."
There was a tap at the door and the hostess entered. "Ah, you found him," she said to Napoleon. Then, "Nick, sweetie, the band is about to start up again if you want to sit in."
"No, that's all right, we've got some catching up to do. And go talk to your daughter. She's stopped listening to me... again."
"Did you even notice how, when she misbehaves, she's my daughter and when she's bringing home top grades, she's yours? You just need to finesse her, Nick, not order her." She stooped to kiss Illya. "You have school tomorrow, so don't stay up all night talking, promise?" She raised a hand in farewell to Napoleon.
"Yes." Illya smiled at her fondly as she left.
"The mother of my children, at any rate." Illya reached for a framed photo and lifted it carefully with both hands. "This is my wife... or husband, the field is divided." Napoleon looked down at a group shot of Illya, the woman, and a third person, a man who was nearly the spitting image of the woman. Illya pointed, "That's Ernst, Cass's twin brother. He was my therapist in the program. She taught piano and he thought it might help me regain some of my flexibility." Illya waggled his fingers. "They're not perfect and I have precious little strength in them but at least they are better than they were."
"After the program, I went job hunting. To get the job I wanted, I needed a wife. Cass wanted kids without the encumbrance of a husband, so she got her kids and I got my cover. It's not a perfect world, but it works for us."
"Has my heart. He lives with us, her ne'er-do-well brother. Together, the three of us own and operate this place."
"But she said school?"
"I teach during the day. It costs a lot to raise kids, Napoleon."
"Three and counting. You met Jeanne, she's the oldest. Her brothers, Eli and Kip, are at home with their uncle. And Cass tells me she's just getting fat because it's the winter, but I know the look. That, and the signs of morning sickness. I suspect she'll tell me when she gets around to it."
"Eli?" Napoleon repeated the name and watched the Russian's eyes grow sad. "Still hurts?"
"Pathetic, yes? I mean, I have all this, certainly more than I deserve or hoped for, and still I mourn for what is no more, what can never be." He ran a hand over his face and sniffed. "And you, old friend, what of you?"
"Still with UNCLE, running the place now."
"Waverly wanted it that way. He made a good choice."
"It's a different world now, Illya... for both of us."
"Do you have someone?"
"Yes, Yuri. He moved in with me about a year after you left. He's a good man, but he's not you. There will never be anyone quite like you, my friend." Napoleon set the photo back on the desk and studied his former partner's hands. "You said once we needed to accept the consequences of our actions and I think that we have, but I can't help but wonder..."
"How things would have changed if we'd become more than just friends when the opportunity first presented itself?"
"Yes. I wish..."
"As do I, but we cannot undo what we have done. We have survived, and for those like us, surviving is the best we can hope for."
There was a knock at the door and the young girl, Jeanne, stepped in, dressed now in jeans and a torn sweatshirt. "Better?" She twirled around once, a frown crunching up her features.
"Perfect, glorious, you're a picture of haute mode. Remember your curfew and don't be too late, we have class tomorrow."
"I won't." She moved quickly across the office to kiss him, pausing when he offered her a few bills from his wallet, and smiled brightly at him. She slipped the money into a pocket and hugged him. "Love you, Daddy." And she was gone.
"She exhausts me just watching her." Illya admitted, shaking his head. "I thought once she got over the colic, things would quiet down. Alas."
"She looks just like you." Napoleon helped himself to another glass of vodka.
"And sadly acts it. My mother always warned me that I'd have one just like me, now that is my curse upon her."
"I don't get it, Illya, how do you..." Napoleon made a gesture with his hands. "When you are...?"
"It took a bit of trial and error, but you know what they say, love will find a way." Illya reached for the phone and carefully punched in a number. He listened for a moment, then spoke, "Cass, could you bring us something to drink? Thanks, my treasure."
Illya smiled, "In more ways than you could know." He dropped his gaze to the desk. "She saved me, Napoleon, she and Ernst. Without them... I wouldn't be without them. Can you understand that?"
"Like me and Yuri. He's my world now." And for the first time in his life, Napoleon knew truly believed and meant it. What he and Illya had had was wonderful, but it was nothing compared to what he had with Yuri. Illya had been his friend, his best friend and he'd not trade a moment he had with him, but Yuri... Yuri was his soul.
Napoleon slipped into his hotel room and smiled. Nothing had been disturbed since he left six hours previously. He yawned and stretched his arms over his head. It was going to be tough to stay awake during the closing remarks today, but he had the evening to look forward to, dinner with Illya and his family.
There was a tap at the door. "Room service, sir, your breakfast is here." Napoleon chuckled and opened the door, after verifying it was one of his men standing there. He motioned the agent in and watched him set a tray on the small dinette table the suite held.
"Nickols, I'll be going out tonight, so make the arrangements."
"Yes, sir, of course, sir. Your limo will be here in thirty minutes." If he noticed the fact that Napoleon was still wearing the same clothes he had on from the night before, he was professional enough to not mention it.
"Perfect." That was just enough time. He went to the phone and dialed a number, pouring himself a cup of coffee as he waited for an answer.
"Yuri? Hello, my love..."
There's a fine, fine, line
Between together and not
And there's a fine, fine line.
Between what you wanted and what you got
I guess if someone doesn't love you back,
It isn't such a crime,
But there's a fine, fine line
Between love and a waste of your time.
(Ave Q—There's a Fine, Fine Line)