If Not For You
Napoleon Solo sat in UNCLE's cafeteria over his mid-morning cup of coffee and scowled at the pair by the door. Jess Coleman, UNCLE's new Chief of Security, was leaning against the wall talking to Illya. At six foot two, with black hair and cobalt blue eyes, Coleman was spectacularly handsome. He bore a strong resemblance to the young Christopher Reeve, and his nickname, as was inevitable, was Superman. He had all the women sighing and fluttering around him, despite his open preference for his own gender. It annoyed Napoleon to see it, and it had caused him a few rueful moments in front of his mirror. It didn't seem so long since he had been UNCLE's reigning leading man, but there was no denying that time had passed. There were lines bracketing his nose and mouth now, more lines around his eyes, and a few touches of grey had appeared at his temples. He was still a very good looking man, and could attract any woman who attracted him, but there was a difference between a man's first flush of youth and his middle age, and no denying which side of that divide he was on.
Jess Coleman was actually younger than Illya, but looking at the two of them you would never know it. Napoleon's scowl deepened. He was aware that they had been out together several times—Coleman had been in hot pursuit of Illya since his arrival here nearly ten weeks ago. Napoleon hadn't cared at first. He dated women, Illya dated men—if you could call it dating. Illya was more private than that. Whatever he did was done in an anonymous hotel room somewhere, and that was where it ended. He and Napoleon had discussed it on occasion, the way they discussed everything. Napoleon had thought that he understood. He had always been Illya's best friend, his only real friend, and that suited him just fine. So what the hell was this now? This... this looked very much like dating. More than dating. This... those two... looked like a relationship. It had never occurred to him to feel insecure about Illya, but suddenly he was, and he disliked the feeling intensely. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down into a void where his emotional life used to be.
It scared him, quite frankly, and that made him angry. The whole thing made him angry, and watching Illya smile up at Jess Coleman made him angrier still. Just then Coleman leaned in and whispered in Illya's ear, and Illya laughed out loud. Coleman whispered some more and Illya shook his head. They smiled into one another's eyes, and the intimacy between them was unmistakable. Then Coleman put two fingers to his forehead in a mock salute, and Illya laughed again before turning away and heading towards Napoleon's table.
Napoleon tried to smooth out his face but he must not have been very successful, because Illya sat across from him and looked at him quizzically.
"Jess was right," he said finally, and Napoleon felt the scowl return.
"What do you mean?"
"You are angry."
"No I'm not."
"Now you're lying to me. What's wrong, Napoleon?"
"I don't like seeing you make a fool of yourself over that man like everybody else at headquarters."
"Is that what you think?" Illya stared at him. "We were only talking."
"And whispering and giggling..."
"I do not giggle!"
"Laughing. You were both laughing and you were downright flirting with him, Illya. It doesn't suit you."
"No?" Illya shook his head. "I'm not sure what's going on, Napoleon."
"I told you. It's unprofessional and unbecoming of you to be batting your eyelashes at a colleague and giving him come hither looks at work. You need to stop. I don't want to see it again."
"Angela," Illya said in a reflective way. "Beth. Jackie—you picked her up in the middle of a Priority One meeting."
"Anna. Teresa—you made a date with her right in front of the Board."
"None of that is any of your business!"
"Oh, I know," Illya agreed. "So why is Jess Coleman yours?"
"It's not at all the same thing!"
Illya rose and Napoleon rose too, to maintain his height advantage. But looking down into those eyes he was taken aback. They were the dark blue of a stormy sea. In fact, if he looked hard enough and long enough, he was sure he would see whitecaps. So Illya was angry too.
"No? And why not?"
"Because it just isn't. And if you can't see that for yourself..."
"Because Jess is a man, you mean? And so am I? I'm didn't kiss him, Napoleon. I'm not that unprofessional." And somehow without saying another word, just by a lift of his eyebrows and a curl of his lip he managed to call up a picture—several pictures—of Napoleon doing just that, with one woman or another, in the cafeteria, or Waverly's office, or... he flushed. Because why was it different? Was it really because of gender? Was he that biased?
"It's not that," he said and heard his voice, how lame the answer was. "Not at all."
Illya folded his arms. "What, then?"
"I don't know!" he almost shouted and saw Illya blink. "I just... I don't like seeing it!"
"Well, too damn bad," Illya shot back—not shouting, of course not, but with those clipped tones that clearly said he was seething. "You're being unreasonable, and I'm not wasting one more moment of my time on it—or you." He turned on his heel and headed towards the exit. Napoleon followed him.
"I suppose you were making a date with him for after work? he asked nastily. "What will it be, a Judy Garland film festival? Or maybe a night at a bath house?" Illya stopped. Turned. Despite himself Napoleon stepped back at the fury in the look he got.
"Jess Coleman is a friend," Illya informed him. "And a nice man. Don't talk about him—or me—in that tone of voice again."
"Go to hell," Illya said, and the anger was gone. He looked tired, and Napoleon peered at him, trying to discern what had caused the difference. "I don't know what's eating you, Napoleon, and frankly I don't care. But I don't have to stand here and let you inflict it on me. For your information, Jess has to work tonight and I'm going home. I'm going to listen to those jazz albums I picked up on our trip to New Orleans last month. It's the first free evening I've had since then. Are you satisfied? I'll be alone. Is that what you want for me? I won't be with you, so I'll be alone. You have fun with whoever she is." He walked away again and Napoleon stood looking after him.
He cancelled his date. He felt depressed, and guilty, and sad. He didn't want to take Janet out for dinner and dancing after all. He didn't know what he wanted. He kept seeing Illya's face, looking older and tired, kept hearing Illya's voice asking him if that was what he wanted, for him to be alone. Because the cold hard truth was that Illya was right. If they weren't going to be together, he didn't want Illya to be with anybody else. He accepted Illya's liaisons because, after all, everyone had to have some kind of a sex life. But he didn't like it.
What was wrong with him? He went home—alone—and stood in his empty apartment, staring into the refrigerator. It was dinner time. He should eat. In his line of work you ate when you could because who knew when you'd get another chance, although that wasn't really true anymore. He was still Section Two, as was Illya—officially. But the fact was neither one of them had been on a field assignment in almost a year, and it was only a matter of time before their job classifications were changed permanently. They were just too recognizable. They couldn't make a move, enter a satrap, try to infiltrate a cover operation, without being spotted. So they were passed over, again and again, or sent on routine assignments like the one last month, in New Orleans.
He supposed that was part of the problem. When he and Illya had been constantly sharing danger and facing death together, the matter of their sex lives was irrelevant, shelved as it was in and among the things that mattered. And now—his work in Operations was important, no question, and interesting too. He liked it. It challenged him in a completely different way, and he supposed he had been ready for a change. But the hours were regular, and he had a lot more free time. So he dated a lot more.
Illya too had more spare time. He seemed to like his work in Science, and he was on a hard track for promotion there. From the way he talked about his projects he was being challenged too, and relishing it. But it left a gap, no question about it. He and Napoleon got together about once a week, for dinner, or a play, or a museum opening but the rest of the time—what did Illya do? He couldn't spend all his nights listening to jazz records. And evidently the faceless pick-ups that had always formed the basis of his private life had started to pall. So he was—what? Turning to Jess Coleman? To a friend? But if he and Coleman were friends, real friends, on top of the sex—what did that mean? Would they move in together? Where would that leave him, Napoleon Solo? On the outskirts of Illya's life? With his dates? He and his work, and his dates, and a huge hollow place instead of... but what was the alternative?
He shut the refrigerator door. What was the alternative? He couldn't realistically ask Illya not to seek out other friendships, companionships... love. Did Coleman love him? How could he not? How could you be with Illya, get to know him, and not—not love him?
I love him, Napoleon thought. I do. He's the only person in my life I do love. But not that way. As he thought those words the hollow place in him deepened. It sounded so irrevocable. He couldn't love Illya that way because Illya was a man. And to have that kind of relationship, there would have to be sex. Otherwise they were back to the meaningless dates and liaisons. But if there could be love, and friendship, and the trust he and Illya had in one another; if there could be all of that, and sex too—he felt as if his heart would break, yearning after it. Because that would be—that would be happiness.
He had never been happy, except on those missions. And then it was overshadowed by the imminent fear of death at the least, and global catastrophe on top of that. He had always thought it was the adrenaline rush that kept him happy. But now he had already discovered that he didn't miss that the way he had thought he would. What he missed was... was Illya. Waking up next to Illya in some hotel room. Sitting beside Illya in the car, watching the wind tousle that blond hair. Facing whatever challenges lay ahead with the bone deep assurance that Illya had his back, that even if Illya were not right there with him, wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he had his partner's well being at heart. Napoleon had never had that with anyone else. He doubted very much if he ever would.
So, given all of that, would gender—should gender—make such a difference? Because he and Illya had it all, except for the sex. Any friendship Illya might have formed with Jess Coleman had to be a pale shadow of theirs. But Illya and Coleman had the sex, too.
All right. He would think about the sex. He sat down on the sofa and made himself think about it. He thought about the differences. Illya's body would be hard all over, no soft curves but instead planes; flat smooth chest, tiny man nipples instead of the lush fullness he was used to. And Illya's ass was hard too, though not flat. Tightly muscled, like the rest of him. Under that smooth, incongruously soft skin Illya was all taut lean strength. Yes, it would be very different to hold Illya in his arms, though not in a bad way, certainly not. He swallowed, loosened his collar.
And there was the obvious, the biggest difference to consider. Illya had a cock. A cock, and balls. He had seen it, of course—after all those years in the field they had no secrets from one another. Illya was fair there, too, with dark gold curls at the base. He was big, almost as big as Napoleon himself, but slimmer—again, just like the rest of him. Not circumcised, which Napoleon had always considered intriguing. He had heard that that protective foreskin made the glans more sensitive, because it was not constantly rubbing against fabric. How sensitive was Illya? How responsive would he be? How... and damn if he wasn't hard. He looked down in surprise.
"What are you doing?" he asked it. "Illya is a man. Since when do you stand up like that for a man?" He got no answer, of course. Reaching down, he loosened his pants, shifted to give it more room. It swelled further under his fingers and he stroked it. Stroked it, and thought of Illya. Of Illya's hands, so strong and capable. Of Illya's mouth, generous with just that suggestion of a pout. And again, of Illya's ass, tight, muscled, opening to him.
He came. Like an adolescent alone on a Friday night, he came in his pants. Well, well, well. He cleaned himself up, changed his clothes. Well, well, well. A wild joy was igniting in him. It could be done, then. He and Illya could have the sex on top of everything else and that would be—that had to be—love. Real love. True love, as they said in the movies. Well, well, well.
He went back to the refrigerator, pulled out the ingredients for beef stroganoff. Illya loved it, he knew. He sliced mushrooms and steak. He boiled water for noodles, mixed a creamy sauce. It didn't take long, and when it was all finished he added a salad, put some French bread in a sack, and called a cab. Illya would be alone, he had said so. Alone, listening to records, and hopefully not too angry with him to listen to reason. Because this was reasonable. Yes it was. It was the most reasonable plan Napoleon had ever come up with.
Illya stared disconsolately at the wall of his apartment. He was sprawled out on his sofa, feet up, a glass of vodka in one hand. He wasn't listening to his jazz records. He couldn't. Just looking at the album covers had brought that afternoon back to him so clearly—Napoleon, who had discovered this little shop, poking through the shelves. He had been trying to persuade Illya to spend his money on one oddment after another—shiny beads, incense burners, outrageously inappropriate garments. Illya had scoffed at the beads, wrinkled his nose at the incense burners and refused to dignify the gaudy clothing with a second look. He picked through the assortment of vintage record albums, ostentatiously ignoring Napoleon. It wasn't until he had made his selection and they were at the cash register that he saw the poncho Napoleon had purchased for him. He had rolled his eyes at it, and sworn he wouldn't be caught dead wearing it unless he was in disguise "as a gaucho or something, Napoleon, what are you thinking?"
But the fact was that in that assortment of garish cheap clothing Napoleon had unerringly spotted an item of real quality. Hand woven from alpaca wool, embroidered painstakingly with white thread, it fit Illya to perfection and the blue green wool made his eyes look like the sea on a summer day. Napoleon had said so, as he settled it on Illya's shoulders, and Illya had blushed hotly. Napoleon had seemed disconcerted both by the blush and his words, because he had made a joke about the fringe attracting dust mites and not mentioned it again. But the poncho hung in Illya's closet now, and when he went out on a chilly evening he wore it. It certainly helped him blend in in his West Greenwich Village neighborhood, and although he would never have said so, the warmth of the poncho made him feel as if it were Napoleon's caring, wrapped around him. Embracing him.
He sighed. This was why he wasn't playing the albums. Look at what just thinking about them did. It called Napoleon's face to his mind so clearly—that quirk of his lips, the warmth in those brown eyes that Illya believed was kept for him alone... then that illusion crumpled under the weight of reality. Those brown eyes had been hard and scornful today. "A bath house" Napoleon had said, and his voice had dripped contempt. So that was how he felt, after all. He had never let on that Illya's sexual orientation bothered him, but there it was, right out in the open. Unhappily, Illya picked at a loose thread on the sofa arm. Why had Napoleon been so angry? Illya never said anything about the endless parade of women—well, that wasn't quite true. Sometimes he did. Sometimes he snapped at Napoleon, and sometimes that same scorn was in his own voice. Maybe Napoleon hadn't meant it to sound the way it did. Maybe... a knock came at his door.
Three sharp raps, then a pause, then two soft thuds, as of a fist. Illya jumped, and came to his feet. That was Napoleon's knock, he would know it anywhere. He looked through the peephole anyway, because you could never be one hundred percent sure of anything, but it was Napoleon's face he saw, and he wrenched the bolt across, unfastened the chain and opened up.
Delicious smells wafted in as Napoleon entered. He was carrying an armful of neatly wrapped packages, and Illya sniffed at them hungrily. He hadn't eaten—couldn't, past the cold lump in his stomach, and now he realized he was ravenous. He sniffed again, and Napoleon laughed at him.
"Let me put these in the oven," he said and Illya stepped back and watched Napoleon cross to the little galley kitchen. He put some of the packages in the oven, one in the microwave, and the salad on the counter. He began tossing it, talking as he did so.
"I made too much, as usual, and..." then he stopped. "No, I can't do this."
Illya's heart sank. "Do what?" he managed and Napoleon put the forks down and turned to face him.
"Illya, I am so sorry," he said. "I had no right to say any of the things I did, and I want you to know I am deeply, profoundly, sorry. Can you forgive me? Can we get past that ugliness and move on?"
"Yes," Illya said. "Of course. I'm sorry too."
"You have nothing to apologize for, although I appreciate the gesture."
"What... what were you so angry about?" He asked it bluntly, because he had to know. Had to know if it was his orientation after all, because if it was, if that was truly how Napoleon felt, it was hard to see how they would get past it.
Napoleon straightened his back, as if bracing himself for something. What? Illya wondered, and his apprehension must have shown because Napoleon put both hands on his shoulders, gave him a squeeze. "I was jealous," Napoleon said with equal bluntness. "I was blind with jealousy, and I was afraid, too."
"Jealous? Of what?"
"Of you. Or of him, I'm not sure how to put it. But I saw that you cared for him, and that he cared for you, and it terrified me. I was terrified I would lose you, that you would turn to him for sex and companionship and... and love, and I would be left all alone with my faceless nameless women."
"Oh." He didn't know what to say. Because Napoleon was drawing him closer, and the expression on his face was unmistakable. It was just the way Napoleon looked at his women before he kissed them. But there was more; a tenderness, a yearning that melted Illya's heart and made his knees feel unreliable.
"I thought about this," Napoleon said huskily, still looking into his eyes in that disconcerting way. "I thought about it deliberately because it seemed to me that if I felt that way, then it must mean something. But I couldn't imagine what it would be like. So I thought about it, and do you know what happened when I pictured you, naked, in my arms? When I pictured us kissing? When I thought about your body, your beautiful..." he ran both hands down Illya's arms, and took his hands. "Body, pressed against mine? When I thought about your ass, and your..." he swallowed, but his eyes were steady as they held Illya's, as steady as the hands still enfolding his. "Your cock? Do you want to know what happened?"
"Um..." did he? Where was Napoleon going with this? He trembled, and Napoleon's hands tightened. Without another word he drew Illya's hands closer, lowered them slightly, and pressed them firmly against his crotch. Against the prominent bulge in his crotch. Against his organ, which was fully erect, straining against its confinement.
"That's what happened," Napoleon whispered. "Illya, do you think we could possibly... that you could ever... I think I'm in love with you. I think that's why I wanted to wring Jess Coleman's neck today—and yours, too. I think I've been so trapped by the whole gender thing that I've missed what was right under my nose." He laughed a little, because close as they were, what was right under his nose were Illya's lips. Illya smiled too. He could think of a thousand issues, problems, worrisome details. He could come up with a hundred and one reasons why this would never work. He didn't care a fig about any of them.
"Yes," he said because that was all he could ever say to Napoleon. "Yes, Napoleon. I could love you. I do love you. And this..." he moved his hips forward, so his erection brushed the backs of their joined hands, trapped them between their bodies. "This happens to me, too, whenever I think about your body. Your..." he laid his head down on Napoleon's shoulder so his lips were brushing Napoleon's neck, so Napoleon's scent was hot and strong in his nostrils. "Beautiful body."
There were no more words. They didn't need words, any more than they ever had. They walked over to Illya's back wall and Illya pulled down the Murphy bed that was concealed there. There was no awkwardness, no hesitation. They undressed, each watching the other, and when they were naked they embraced. Now their organs rubbed against each other, and each man caught his breath. It seemed they were standing on the brink of something so beautiful, so wondrous, that neither one was in a hurry. They lay down, carefully, pushing back blankets and sheets so they were comfortable and unencumbered, and then they moved together.
They moved together, Illya's legs wrapped around Napoleon's calves, Napoleon's arms wrapped around Illya's shoulders. Illya clutched at him and Napoleon squeezed back and they gasped and groaned and cried aloud, hips rocking, bodies pressing close, mouths seeking and finding one another so their final shouts of passion were each smothered in the mouth of the other.
They lay there, still entwined, for an endless time. Finally Napoleon moved, shifting onto one elbow so he could look down into Illya's face. He smiled at what he saw there, and Illya smiled back.
"I love you," Napoleon said again and heard the commitment in the words as he said them. He had never said them to another human being and, having spoken them, knew there would be no looking back.
"I love you too," Illya responded and he too understood that he was speaking his vows, there in that tumbled bed, that there would be no returning to his former life, that his life—their lives, had forever changed. He kissed Napoleon's chin, lightly and Napoleon drew him closer still. Then he got up, got a towel from Illya's bathroom, and cleaned them both. He returned to bed and reached for Illya again.
Napoleon's radio beeped. They stared at it in mutual disbelief, then Napoleon reached over and picked it up off the table. "Solo here," he said and Illya hid his face in the pillow to smother his laughter. Napoleon sounded as cool and professional as if he were sitting at his desk, in formal business wear, instead of naked and rumpled and sweaty. Napoleon grinned at him, but the grin faded as he listened. Finally he sighed, and Illya wondered what they made of that sigh over at headquarters. It clearly said that Napoleon did not want to answer the summons, whatever it was, and it was rare indeed that Napoleon Solo would let his feelings show so plainly. "Fine," he said, and disconnected. Then he turned to look at Illya.
"I have to go," he said and although Illya had been prepared for those words, had known it really with that first beep, he was still savagely disappointed.
"You do?" he said, although of course Napoleon did. Even now he was sitting up, picking up his clothes, shaking them out.
"Yes. I wish I didn't. I thought this was well behind us. But—"
"A field assignment? Alone?" Illya sat up too. "Why aren't I going with you?"
"It's not like that. It's more of an escort service, and they probably think the two of us would attract attention."
"And you won't?"
"They say no, not the way they have it mapped out. I can't tell you any more, but look for me in forty-eight hours or so."
"All right." Illya watched Napoleon finish dressing, and then the oven timer rang. Napoleon crossed to the stove, turned it off.
"Everything's ready," he said. "You eat it. I made it especially for you because I know you like it. I want you to eat it."
"I will," Illya said because he was starving, and it smelled wonderful, and Napoleon had made it especially for him. "Of course I will."
"And when I come back," Napoleon promised, coming over to the bed and pulling Illya upright by the hands, "we'll talk to them. It's effectively over, we've known it for months. I'll tell them that we're together, that you're moving in with me, and that we want to stick around headquarters more instead of being moving targets out in the cold. All right?"
"Yes." Napoleon kissed him once more, quickly but deeply and it was so sweet, so very sweet... he was drowning in that sweetness and then it was over and Napoleon was gone.
Illya stared at the door, then went to it, locked it. He took his dinner out of the oven, finished tossing the salad, put one of those jazz albums on, and enjoyed his meal thoroughly. He drank vodka, and conducted music with his forefinger, and ate until his stomach was full. He had never been so happy.
How had it gone so wrong? Napoleon sat in the dark and gave a hard look at the man beside him. Aruto Benedi. A Thrush renegade, selling out his former masters because he had caused one local scandal too many and there was a price on his head. Who knew how many lives he had taken, how much innocent blood was on his hands? And it was Napoleon's job to protect him, to give his own life if need be to do so.
Oh Illya, he thought. I'm sorry. I am so very sorry.
Illya was walking on air. He had slept very well that night, after Napoleon left. His body was relaxed and sated from lovemaking, his heart was full to bursting. He had lain there sleepily counting the hours before Napoleon's return, and next thing he knew the sun was blazing through the window. He had been late to work that day. He didn't care.
The day dragged, so he had shut himself in the containment unit and worked on an experiment he had been putting off for the very reasons he now embraced it. It required solitude, it required isolation, it required total concentration. And every once in a while, when he lifted his head, he realized hours had gone by, and that mental tally grew lower.
At lunch he ran into Jess Coleman. "Illya!" Jess was plainly delighted to see him. "Are you free tonight? Let's catch a movie and make out in the back row."
Illya laughed up at him. "No thank you. I'm afraid all that's over with."
Jess pretended to faint against the wall. "Say it ain't so, Illya," he implored, bringing both hands to his chest. "Say you're only joking in a mean kind of way."
"I'm afraid not." He knew Jess wasn't in love with him, any more than he was in love with Jess. It had been fun, and now it was over. "Friends?"
"Friends," Jess agreed and extended a hand. Illya took it and Jess held on. "Care to tell me why? Is it something I said? Something I did? Didn't do? Bad breath? I'll change my cologne, my mouthwash, my tailor. I'll pick up those condoms ribbed for your pleasure that you were laughing at in the drugstore the other day."
"It's none of those and don't be ridiculous. I can't tell you yet. But... Jess, I'm so happy right now. I'm sorry, I know it's insensitive of me but I can't help it. I'm just so happy."
"Let me guess," Jess said and from the wicked glint in his eyes Illya suddenly knew that Jess's guess would be right. How he knew he couldn't have said, but know it he did.
"Don't say it," he implored. "He wouldn't like it. He has to talk to Mr. Davenport first, and... and you know he likes to follow procedure. Don't even say it,."
"All right, sugar, I won't say a word. You sure we can't stay fuck buddies on the side?"
"No. Nothing on the side."
"On both your parts?" Jess was suddenly serious. "Because it wouldn't be fair, you know, Illya. I don't think you'd be happy..."
"On both our parts," Illya said serenely. "Thank you for your concern."
"Well, as your friend," he drawled the word, "I have to watch out for your interests. But we could still catch a movie tonight, couldn't we? Since you know who is out of town."
"You do not know who, and no thank you. I want to..." go home alone and remember Napoleon's hands on my body, remember Napoleon's lips on mine, put my face in the pillow that still holds his scent and... Jess was grinning broadly.
"I get it. Your face is an open book where that man is concerned, Illya. You know that, don't you?"
"No, it is not." He affected his most severe expression. "See?"
"Ah, the Ice Prince cometh. Another time?"
"Another time," Illya agreed. "Let me go to lunch, Jess. I'm hungry."
He was hungry. He ate ravenously, disappeared into his work again and stopped for pizza on the way home that night. He ate the entire thing and then he did lie in bed and think of Napoleon's hands, and his mouth, his hot breath and his... he had a little more trouble falling asleep that night, but once he did his dreams were sweet.
The next day he ate a huge breakfast then buried himself in the last stages of his experiment. He was very excited. 'Look for me in forty-eight hours' Napoleon had said, and it had been nearly forty. Napoleon was even now on his way back. Tonight they would be together again. Tonight he would lie wrapped in Napoleon's arms, sated once again from their lovemaking. He finished up his experiment, satisfied by the results, and headed down to the cafeteria for a late lunch. He bounced a little with each step, hands deep in the pockets of his lab coat, counting down the hours.
After a few minutes he noticed that something was amiss. People clustered in little groups, talking and whispering and falling silent as he approached. He sent them curious looks, but was too hungry to stop. Whatever the newest gossip was, he would hear it soon enough. In fact... three of his lab assistants, all young women in their early twenties, surrounded him as he waited for the elevator.
"Oh, Illya," Liz breathed. "Isn't it awful? It's the most terrible thing."
"What?" he asked without much interest. Their eyes widened.
"You mean you haven't heard?" Cindy asked. Her face assumed a tragic look. "Oh no. I hate to be the one to have to tell you." Actually, Illya thought, she probably loved the idea. Cindy was always talking about how deeply sensitive she was, and was always the first one to attach herself to the victim of a disaster.
"Tell me what?" he asked politely, pressing the button for the elevator again.
"It's Mr. Solo," Cindy said solemnly. "He's been killed in action."
Illya almost laughed. "That's ridiculous," he said. "He's on his way home. He'll be here this evening."
"Are you sure?" Rebecca asked doubtfully. "I mean, it's all over the building."
"Has an official announcement been made?" Illya demanded, and, when they shook their heads, he scoffed.
"Well then. It's a mistake—and it is very irresponsible for you three to be spreading it," he added sternly. Their eyes fell. "He's on his way home right now," he repeated firmly.
The elevator arrived and Jake Davenport, UNCLE's Section Chief since Alexander Waverly's retirement, stepped out. He was flanked by three other men, but Illya didn't have a chance to see who they were because Davenport caught his arm and turned him away from the doors.
"Agent Kuryakin," he said gravely. "I—we—have been looking for you."
"Yes?" Illya looked inquiringly at the tall broad shouldered man. "I'm sorry. I've been in the containment room finishing up that batch of cultures. It's coming out just as we thought it would, sir."
"Yes. Agent Kuryakin, I need to tell you some distressing news. I feel you have a right to hear it before the general announcement."
"What?" Illya asked. He heard the three women gasp and wondered why they were so interested in what would probably be a dry office bulletin.
"Agent Napoleon Solo was killed in action this morning."
"Nonsense," Illya said decisively. "I've already heard that silly rumor and there's nothing to it. Napoleon is on his way home. He'll be home tonight."
"Agent Kuryakin," Davenport began, and then one of the other men who had been in the elevator with him stepped forward. Illya looked at him and a deep throb of foreboding, like an ominous chord, went through him. Alexander Waverly. What on earth was Alexander Waverly doing here? He hardly ever came into the office anymore. For him to be here—and furthermore his face was as somber as Davenport's, and even worse, there was pity in his eyes.
No! Illya began talking very fast because if he could just get through the next few minutes, if he could just get past this danger point everything would be all right. If he didn't give Waverly a chance to say... "I really have to hurry," he said quickly. "I didn't have lunch because of those cultures and I can't leave them for very long. In fact I need to get back to them right now. It was very nice to see you, Mr. Waverly, but I can't stop to talk." He turned and walked away. He hurried because if he could get around the next corner and into the lab, if he could get back to the containment unit and close the door and go back to his work, back to this morning when he had been so absorbed in his work... he ignored the footsteps behind him but he couldn't ignore Davenport's hand catching him by the arm, turning him around.
"You don't understand," Illya said, desperate now to get away. "Those cultures will... will..." Davenport's eyes held the same pity now, and Illya's throat dried up. He looked mutely at Waverly.
"I am very sorry, Mr. Kuryakin," he said. "The plane being used to transport Mr. Solo and his contact was blown up over the ocean. It went down in flames. There were no survivors."
"Nonsense," Illya said again, and even he could hear that his voice was no longer certain. "He's on his way home. He'll be home tonight."
"He was on his way home," Waverly agreed. "He would have been home this evening. But—"
"That can't be right," Illya said, not caring that he was interrupting Waverly. "We... we had plans." He was pleading now, his eyes holding Waverly's in an open appeal. "We... he... it's a mistake."
"No," Waverly said gently, and
"No," Davenport echoed.
No. Not a mistake. Not ridiculous. Not nonsense at all. Napoleon had been bringing his assignment home, the man he had been called on to protect. They had been flying home and the plane had exploded. It had gone down in flames. Napoleon had gone down in flames. Suddenly Illya could see it, the cockpit engulfed, Napoleon's clothes on fire, his hair on fire, his flesh turning black, his voice screaming as he plummeted down and down, hitting the water, down and down and down and now...
"Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said sharply and Illya blinked.
"Would you like to go home for the rest of the day?"
Home. Back to his apartment where he had eaten with Napoleon, laughed with him, made love... "No!" There was panic in his voice and he forced it back. "No," he repeated. "Thank you. I... I have to finish. Those cultures..." his words trailed off and he turned. This time they let him go and he turned the corner, went into the lab, walked past his silent co-workers and locked himself in the containment room.
The pain engulfed him there. It was a physical pain that nearly drove him to his knees and he clutched the counter for support. It was a terrible crushing agony in his chest and he wondered dimly if he were having a heart attack. That would be convenient. He could just lie down and die and how could he be blamed? He took his pulse but no, it was strong and steady. How could that be? He gasped for breath through the pain. Abandoning the idea of work, he sank to the floor and drew his knees up to his chest, dropped his head onto them. For a very long time he just sat there. No one knocked at the door, no one buzzed for admittance, no one called him on his radio. He sat huddled on the floor and over and over again he saw the flames, Napoleon's face, heard Napoleon's voice crying out—for him. Napoleon would be wondering why Illya hadn't come to the last minute rescue as he always did. Napoleon—ah, Napoleon. Illya stuffed his fist into his mouth because it really felt as if he must cry aloud with the pain and if so he didn't want anybody to hear him. Napoleon would... Napoleon would expect him to keep his dignity. Napoleon would... would never come home to him again. Never. Never again.
Somehow the day passed. Every moment was pain, every breath was pain, every second was agony. But he lived through it, through one breath and then the next, and when he finally emerged from the containment room it was because he had to use the bathroom. It was so anticlimactic he would have laughed at himself if there was any laughter left in him. He had to go to the bathroom. So he went to the little cubicle off the main laboratory, used it and washed his hands at the sink. His reflection in the mirror caught his eyes and he stared at it.
He looked exactly the same. What he had expected he couldn't have said, but it was incredible that he looked just the same as always. His eyes were opaque, giving nothing away and there was nothing unusual about that. His mouth was tight, his face pale, but he'd looked worse after a rough assignment. After a rough mission with Napoleon. He tightened his hands on the sink and watched his mouth open in a wordless cry of pain. That looked different. Savagely he fought to compose himself, and when he had he returned to the containment room.
He spent the night there. Where else was he to go? He couldn't bear the thought of his own apartment and even the sleep units UNCLE provided contained too many memories of Napoleon. Often enough he and Napoleon had worked late, expected an early start and stayed over, leaving the doors open so they could call back and forth to one another as they undressed for the night, closing and locking them finally to fall asleep and Illya had always slept well, knowing that Napoleon was right next door, only a thin slice of steel away.
Never again. Never again would they sleep so close, ride in a car together, laugh, talk... never again. Because Napoleon was dead. The flames filled his mind and he moaned, brought his fists to his eyes and rubbed at them. Maybe it hadn't been that bad. Maybe Napoleon had been killed in the first blast and knew nothing of the fire, the fall, the cold deep sea. Maybe.
He left the room early the next morning and slipped up to the office he and Napoleon had shared. That nearly broke him, coming in the door, seeing Napoleon's desk, even his jacket was there, draped casually across the back of his chair. He must have worn a different one for this last assignment. Illya picked it up, buried his face in it, inhaled the scent of Napoleon.
He had to sit down after that, his knees refusing to support him. Reluctantly he laid the jacket aside. He had to shower, that was why he had come in here. He couldn't go through a work day without a shower. In a minute he would. In a minute he would have the strength to get up, walk into the bathroom, strip, shower and put on one of the changes of clothes he kept here. In a minute... his intercom buzzed.
"Illya?" It was the bright voice of one of the relief secretaries. Their usual one must be out for some reason. He frowned.
"Mr. Solo is here to see you."
Joy lit his mind like an incendiary flare. A mistake after all! Of course! He had known it had to be a mistake, and it was! "Sent him in," he called and stood up, already ready to tease Napoleon about the error, to pretend to be offended that Napoleon hadn't called... but the man who entered wasn't Napoleon and Illya stared at him blankly. The man swore.
"Silly bitch," he said. "I told her my full name. Illya? It's Charles. Charles Solo. Napoleon's brother. Remember? We met at Thanksgiving dinner."
"At Jillian's house," Illya said through numb lips. "I remember." Napoleon's sister, Jillian, loved to gather the clan for holidays. Most of the time Napoleon had been too occupied with work, but every once in a while he was able to make it and he always brought Illya with him. The brothers and sister had laughed and teased one another and Illya had watched, fascinated by this look into Napoleon's youth and childhood. Now Charles Solo stood in front of him, and underneath the anger Illya could see the ravages of grief.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said politely because it wasn't Charles's fault that the secretary had announced him that way, it was his name after all, it wasn't his fault Illya had stupidly believed... "I'm very sorry," he repeated.
"And I am sorry for your loss, Illya," Charles said and the kindness in his voice made Illya flinch. He didn't think he could bear kindness right now. As if sensing that, Charles's voice became brisk and business like.
"Please sit down," he said as if this were his office, not Illya's and Illya sat. "I have some matters to discuss with you."
"As the executor of Napoleon's estate, I was entrusted with the details he left for this eventuality."
"He wanted you to handle the memorial service."
Memorial service. For a long time Illya grappled with the words. Memorial service. Napoleon's memorial service. He looked up at Charles. "I don't want to," he said, and heard the childishness of it as he said it. But he didn't want to. He didn't want to do anything anymore. He hadn't even been able to work himself up to take a shower. How could he possibly... "I don't want to," he repeated.
"I understand. But there won't be much to it. Napoleon left very detailed instructions." He handed Illya an envelope. "Everything is laid out in there. All you have to do is make the arrangements."
"Napoleon wanted you to do it," Charles repeated firmly.
"Yes. He said no one else would do. I offered, but he said it had to be you. The other half of his soul, he called you."
"Napoleon said that?"
"We had plans," Illya said, as if that could stop this monstrous thing before it gained momentum. Now there was to be a memorial service. He had had the news delivered to him, and survived that. He had passed the night, the night that was supposed to bring Napoleon home to him, and that was behind him. Now it was another day and here was Napoleon's brother talking of a memorial service. He was moving on from the moment of Napoleon's death, and into a future without him. He wanted to scream out against it, but he only nodded obediently. If Napoleon had wanted this of him, then of course he had to do it. It was the least he could do, since he hadn't been there to guard Napoleon's back. To save Napoleon's life.
"I'm sorry," Charles said and Illya nodded.
"It must be terrible, to lose a brother," he offered, because Charles was being so kind he should... "how is Jillian?"
"Desolate," Charles said. "Napoleon was her baby brother. She remembers helping take care of him when he was small, pushing him in the carriage, tying his shoes. She is inconsolable, just as we are."
Inconsolable. Illya turned the word over in his mind. Charles Solo was good with words, just as Napoleon had been. Desolate. Inconsolable. Yes he was. He surely was. "It's terrible to lose a brother," he repeated.
"It is terrible to lose the other half of your soul," Charles returned and Illya looked at him. Their eyes held, then Illya lowered his.
"Yes," he said finally. "Yes it is."
"You will see that Napoleon left a great deal of decision making to Jillian. The location—she will select her own home church, of course. Napoleon said that since she was the only one who would care where it was, it should be as she liked. The music—the clothes he was to wear..." he choked, for the first time unable to speak. Illya was equally unable. Clothes. There would be no need for clothes. Napoleon's body was a charred ruin, drifting somewhere deep under the ocean. The enormity of the image silenced them both for a very long time. Finally Charles cleared his throat.
"There is another matter."
"Yes?" Illya was suddenly wildly grateful that Charles had another matter because anything was better than thinking about those clothes they would not need.
"He has left you everything. The condo, the money in his bank accounts, everything."
"What?" Maybe he had gone insane. Maybe this was all some sort of psychotic break. The idea was comforting for a moment. If that were the case, he was in a hospital somewhere and surely Napoleon would come to visit him soon. "Why would he do that?"
"Why not? Who else, Illya?"
"Well—you. Jillian." He faltered. "Someone."
"Jillian and I are already extremely well provided for. What would we do with the apartment, besides sell it? He wanted you to have it. He said he'd been trying to get you into a Security One building for years."
"I can't live there." It was an incredible thought. Move into Napoleon's luxurious penthouse apartment, walk through his thickly carpeted halls, watch the nightly news on his big screen television? Heat up his meals in Napoleon's gleaming marvel of a kitchen? Sit on his balcony, sleep in his bed?
That pain did make him cry out. Because that was how it would have been, he knew it without question. Napoleon would have taken him home. That was the inevitable next step. They would have lived together and loved one another... "I can't!"
"He wanted you to," Charles said, implacable. "He told me you would argue and protest and my instructions are to overrule all of your objections with the simple fact that this is what he wanted. He said he could rest in peace knowing you were safe and secure. Then he laughed, because he knew as well as we both do that safety and security are not words people in our profession can seriously use. 'As safe and secure as it is in my power to guarantee,' he amended, and made me promise. So here." He held out a key and Illya looked at it.
"Take it," Charles ordered and Illya did because how could he stand against this man with Napoleon's voice and Napoleon's eyes using Napoleon's wishes against him? "And this." Charles handed Illya a card, a bank card. His name was on it, and he turned it over and over.
"It accesses the funds in the primary checking account," Charles went on. "That in turn is fed by the trust fund."
"Which earns more in interest than he can possibly spend," Illya said because that was what Napoleon always said when Illya tried to protest against his picking up the tab the way he always did.
"How can I take this?"
"Oh," Illya said again. Charles rose.
"He wanted the service held as soon as possible after his death. So people could move on, he said. Yes?"
Just like Napoleon, Illya thought. Just like him, to end a string of orders with that 'Yes?' More than a question, but less than a command. "Yes," he said, and watched Charles Solo leave.
Napoleon had indeed been thorough. Illya looked through his memoranda for the projected memorial service, and found it hard to breathe through the pain. It was just like one of their missions, when Napoleon had planned it out ahead of time and all Illya had to do was follow through.
"If it's a closed coffin," Napoleon had written in his precise script, "Jillian will no doubt want a picture mounted. Let her pick it out, but I do not want it on the programs." That hurt so much Illya had to stop reading and bend over double, resting his forehead on the desk, bringing his fist down silently beside it. No picture on the program.
He and Napoleon had attended the funeral of another agent, long ago. His smiling face was featured prominently on the programs everyone held, and Illya had thought that was nice until they came out into the parking lot afterwards, into a driving rain. Abandoned programs lay scattered about, and the face smiled up at them from puddles, and in some places there were muddy footprints on it. Napoleon had shuddered. "Don't let them do that to me," he'd said to Illya, only half laughing. "Promise me, Illya. I don't want to think of my image strewn about like so much trash in the gutter."
Illya had promised, and shivered too. A goose walking over your grave, Napoleon had teased him and taken him out for a hot lunch to dispel the chill. It was your grave, Illya thought now, still doubled over in pain. Your grave, not mine.
His name leapt out at him as the only speaker. After the hymn, after the open invitation for anyone to say a few words, Napoleon had written "Illya Kuryakin. Fifteen to twenty minutes." Illya had to smile at that. It was so typical of Napoleon, to specify time as well as order. He typed up the finished program neatly, and faxed it to Jillian as instructed in Napoleon's letter. Then he called her, because he didn't want the fax to come as too much of a shock.
"Jillian," he said when she answered the phone and at the sound of his voice she burst into tears.
"Illya," she wailed. "Oh, Illya. How can he be gone? My brave sweet little brother, gone! How can this have happened?"
"I'm sorry," Illya said softly. "I just—I wanted to let you know I faxed the program to you. Napoleon wants you to pick the music, and he said you would want it at your church. He wants it to be tomorrow. I mean, he wanted it within two days of his..." he couldn't finish. 'Death' sounded too brutal for this weeping sister. 'Passing' was too euphemistic. Besides, she knew what he meant.
"There won't even be a body to bury," she mourned. "My baby brother, nothing but..." now it was her turn to leave a sentence unfinished. Illya swallowed.
"I know. But he said you can have a picture..." and how pitiful that sounded, as an attempt at consolation. "Not on the program though," he added hastily. and wanted to bite his tongue off. That was even worse. But unexpectedly she laughed, a choked little sound.
"Oh I know. All those wretched programs in the rain. I know. Will you speak, Illya? I don't think I can, and I know Charles said he didn't plan to."
"I will. I have to. He wanted me to."
"Poor Illya," she said through fresh tears. "You're going to miss him dreadfully, aren't you."
"Yes," he said, because that was the truth. "I am."
"Poor us," Jillian said, and Illya nodded.
"I'll see you there tomorrow, Jillian."
The service was well attended. Illya sat alone in the front left hand pew and pretended he hadn't heard the fierce whispered contesting of his position. Frank, brother to Jillian's husband Lloyd, had objected strenuously to being relegated to the second pew behind Jillian, Lloyd and Charles. "He's not even family," he had insisted and Charles had said something to him in a voice too low for Illya to hear. Frank had paled and fallen silent. Illya wished Frank had just asked him. He would have moved, no problem. What did it matter where he sat? What did any of this matter, really? But it was expected, he knew that much, and it would have dishonored Napoleon's memory not to have done it, or to have done it haphazardly.
It was a beautiful church. Stained glass windows commemorating different occasions in the life of Jesus Christ surrounded them, letting sunlight filter in in mixed shades of blue, red, gold and green. Every pew was filled and folding chairs had been produced to accommodate the crowd.
Nicole, Illya's secretary, had stepped up in a surprising way. She had had the programs printed and delivered to the church that morning. She had arranged for a guest book on a little podium in the narthex, and a pen to go with it. "I'll take care of all the details," she had promised Illya and she had. He was grateful, because he could see how much it meant to Jillian. She had placed one program carefully in her purse for safe keeping, and had stroked the guest book like a fond parent. People kept hugging her and expressing their sympathy and she kept crying and talking about her baby brother.
Charles, less approachable, still had his hand shaken, his shoulder gripped, his back patted. He answered gravely, and had a seemingly endless supply of handkerchiefs to offer sobbing women.
Only a very few people expressed sympathy to Illya. Only a very few people knew what he and Napoleon had meant to one another. One of those was Jess Coleman.
"I'll handle security," he had told Illya the afternoon before. "You don't have to give it another thought. I'll make sure the church and its outbuildings are clear, and I'll assign personnel to direct parking and make sure no one gets in who shouldn't be there. I know his family, and you can get me a guest list, right?"
"Right," Illya had answered. He hadn't even considered security, and was shocked at himself for the lapse. He kept thinking he had it all under control, and kept finding out differently. Jess had nodded and gone his way and sure enough, security was tight but not obtrusive, vehicles were guided to parking spots and strangers were discretely checked out and either admitted or denied entrance. Illya was grateful to him, too.
He listened to the music with only half an ear. "Amazing Grace" was the first general hymn and he stood and held a hymnbook without singing himself. Charles stepped forward and invited anyone who had known Napoleon to say a few words, and several people did so. Jake Davenport was one of them but, somewhat to Illya's surprise, Alexander Waverly did not, although he sat by Davenport's side in a black suit.
Napoleon's picture gazed out at all of them. It was an old photo, of a youthful Napoleon. Jillian's baby brother, Illya thought not unkindly. If that was how she wanted to remember him, what harm? None. He stared at the smooth young face, at the eager dark eyes, the confident smile. Oh, Napoleon. For a moment the pain of missing him was so sharp he couldn't breathe, then the constriction lessened somewhat and he drew a ragged inhalation. It was a good thing, because next was his turn.
He had written it out, just as if it were any business presentation. He had outlined the things he wanted to say, the topics he would be expected to cover. He spoke of Napoleon at work, of his courage and his devotion to duty, and saw Davenport and Waverly nodding approval. Then he spoke of Napoleon's affection for his family, mentioning Charles and Jillian by name, sending her into a fresh paroxysm of tears. He segued neatly into his early acquaintance with Napoleon.
"He invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at Jillian's house our first year together as work partners," he said. "He didn't want me to be alone in a strange country during the holidays. I've never forgotten it." He drew a deep breath. "Napoleon Solo was the best friend I have ever had," he continued evenly. "He will be sorely missed." He sat down, heart pounding, hands sweating. Even that little bit, even that tiny little revelation, made him feel he had stripped naked in front of this crowd. But no one was looking at him. A soloist sang about meeting at the river, and then it was over.
No body meant no graveside service. Jillian had invited a few close friends and colleagues to brunch at her house, and Illya supposed he would have to make an appearance or risk being thought rude. He didn't want to be thought rude. He didn't want to be thought of at all, really, wanted to pass through this as unnoticed as possible. So he drove to Jillian's, where he had spent so many pleasant afternoons by the pool, or around a dinner table, and accepted a glass of punch.
Jillian threw her arms around him. "Every Thanksgiving from here on in," she choked. "Every one, Illya. I won't take no for an answer. Napoleon would have wanted us to keep an eye on you. He didn't like you being alone so much. Promise me."
"I promise," he agreed because, again, what did it matter where he spent Thanksgiving? If it gave her pleasure, if she really thought it would have given Napoleon pleasure—and probably it would have. Probably it would. She moved on into another hugging, exclaiming group, and he sipped his punch and looked around.
Jillian was engulfed in warm female consolation. Charles was surrounded by men from his office, awkward looking men trying to get through the afternoon. Frank and his wife were talking to some of Napoleon's friends.
Only he was alone. Alone, all alone, alone forever. No one really thought he needed consolation except for Jillian and Charles, and they were submerged in their own grief. Carefully he set down his glass and left. He drove back to the city, and after wrestling with himself for a moment, went to Napoleon's building.
It wasn't as painful as he'd feared. He had stayed here alone before, whenever Napoleon was out of town for an extended period of time. Napoleon hadn't wanted it standing empty for too long, and Illya hadn't wanted that either. It wasn't safe. So he would stay there a night, at his place a night, at Napoleon's for two, work for one and so on, always avoiding a predictable pattern, never letting it be empty for more than two or three nights at a time. So he was accustomed to being the only one here, to padding about on the carpet barefoot after a shower, to making himself a sandwich and eating in front of the television. He was used to the computer station, to brushing his teeth at the sink, to sleeping in Napoleon's bed, alone.
Alone. He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. Alone. Alone forever, in this great luxurious expanse of space. How odd, that Napoleon had left it to him. He wanted to know you were taken care of, Charles had said, and Illya knew that was true. Napoleon had wanted him to be safe and comfortable. Napoleon had wanted to provide what security he could. Napoleon had wanted to think of him here, and so here he was. Alone. Alone forever.
Time passed, and it was three weeks since that dreadful afternoon when Waverly and Davenport had given him the news. "It'll get easier," people said. "It's the first week, month and year that are the hardest," someone else counseled. "You'll remember the good times after time has gone by." "Time heals all wounds." "Time is the great healer."
Well, time had done nothing for him. The pain was as raw now as it had been that first day—worse, because the shock he'd initially moved in had left. No merciful numbness helped him through the days—and nights. He did remember the good times with Napoleon, but that only sharpened the pain. It rode with him day and night, heavy in his chest. It moved about in his vitals like an animal, digging its teeth into him at the least provocation. The sight of Napoleon's desk. The sound of Davenport's voice on the intercom. Seeing David Locke, Napoleon's replacement. Smelling coffee. When someone had brought a pizza in for lunch the pain had taken even him by surprise, swooping down with its savage claws, forcing him to turn away from the sight. How many times had Napoleon brought him pizza?
"You have to eat something," he would scold when Illya was too involved in a project to stop for lunch.
"I know," he'd answer irritably, and then make Napoleon laugh by devouring the whole thing. "Don't laugh at me!" he'd snap and Napoleon would flick his nose with one finger and say...
Oh, stop. Stop it stop it stop it. He pounded his fist against the wall, welcoming the pain, a pain that had nothing to do with grief.
Worst of all were the nightmares. He would bolt upright, the scent of smoke, the acrid odor of burring jet fuel, hot in his nostrils. He would hear Napoleon screaming as he burned, screaming as he fell, screaming his name, his last thought one of betrayal that Illya hadn't come to the rescue one final time.
But the apartment was a comfort. He wouldn't have expected it, had thought the constant sight of Napoleon's rooms, Napoleon's furniture, Napoleon's possessions, would wake the beast that lived inside him, but it didn't. It soothed it, made him feel as if Napoleon's arms were wrapped around him still, somehow. And sleeping in Napoleon's bed, smelling the scent of him on his linens... clean linens, of course, he wasn't crazy—yet—he changed the sheets every other day the way Napoleon had but still they seemed to carry his scent... occasionally brought the other dreams, the good dreams.
Napoleon gathered him into his arms, pressed kisses all over his body. Napoleon opened him wide, spread him wide, prepared him for entry. He would be gasping and crying out, clutching at Napoleon, pulling at him—and then wake up. It never happened, Napoleon never filled him and oh, he wished he had, he wished they had done that that last night, their only night. He had never allowed it, that final intimacy. It required a depth of trust he had not had in any of his sex partners, even Jess Coleman. It had been done to him often enough, in those bygone days before UNCLE, but once he had his own say in the matter, he said no. But he wouldn't have said no to Napoleon, if Napoleon had asked it of him. If only Napoleon had. Maybe then he could dream it. As it was he woke shaking and sweating and unsatisfied. A few times he brought himself to completion, squeezing his eyes shut and picturing Napoleon as hard as he could, but it was a bitter finish and came closer to bringing him to tears than anything else had.
He hadn't cried. He wouldn't cry. He didn't think he could anyway, but he refused to find out. Sometimes tears were a hot salty pressure in his chest and it seemed if he could release them it would appease the grief monster, stop it shredding him from the inside for a time at least, but he refused. He didn't even know why he refused, except for the irrational fear that if he ever did let go, if he ever did release it, he wouldn't be able to stop. He would cry for Napoleon for the rest of his life.
He had thought of ending that life, too, more than once. If the years remaining to him—how many of them, all else being equal!—were like this, then how could he face it? Why—why should he face it? But the answer to that was stern and uncompromising. He had his work. It was his duty to do his work. He had a job to do, an obligation to UNCLE to fulfill, and he refused to be too weak. He was a man. And a man did his duty regardless of his pain. So when suicide beckoned, calling him to join Napoleon in whatever afterlife there might be, or at the least to lose all pain and memory in oblivion, he turned away from it and resolutely looked for some necessary task to do.
He worked all day. He had worked into the nights, too, in the beginning—worked until very late and then snatched a few hours sleep in his office chair until Davenport called him on it.
"I cannot have you working yourself into exhaustion," he had said in that implacable, nearly inhuman way he had. "I will not allow it, and I will not turn my head and pretend I don't see it. Unless you wish to be placed on a leave of absence, you must work more reasonable hours."
"What would that be?" he had asked because he truly didn't know anymore, what a normal life would consist of. Davenport had studied him for a moment, and that austere face softened slightly.
"No more than ten to twelve hours a day, five or six days a week. " he had answered finally. "And go home at night."
"All right." He had waited to be dismissed, but Davenport had only continued to study him.
"I am very sorry, Agent Kuryakin, that this is so difficult and painful for you," he had said at last, gently for him. "From the bottom of my heart, I wish the situation were different."
"Thank you." I don't know what to say, when people say things to me, he'd said to Jess Coleman once, shortly after the memorial service. They tell me they're sorry and other things too, and I don't know how to answer them. Thank you, Jess had answered. That's all that's required, a simple thank you. Thank you, he'd said, genuinely grateful and Jess had laughed a little. Illya had looked at him, puzzled. Was that a joke, he'd asked. Did I make a joke? No, sugar, Jess had answered, and patted his back. He had stiffened. Napoleon hadn't liked seeing Jess touch him, seeing Jess near him. He backed away. But he'd held onto the advice, and found that it was true. It didn't even matter if he said it more than once in the same conversation. It seemed to satisfy people, and it satisfied Davenport now. He nodded. Dismissed, the nod said and Illya had left.
He worked eleven hours a day after that, because Davenport had said ten to twelve, so eleven was definitely safe. He didn't want to go on leave. What would he do? What would he think about? The five or six days a week worried him a little more, because which should it be? Five or six? He'd been working seven. But that was excessive, Davenport had said so he compromised. Five one week, six the next. Eleven hours a day, five or six days a week. That would keep him on active duty.
And when he was home, he curled up on Napoleon's sofa—he still couldn't make himself think of it as his, none of it. It was Napoleon's sofa and Napoleon's bed in Napoleon's apartment, and there was some consolation in reflecting that Napoleon had wanted him here, that Napoleon had cared for him that much. Loved him that much. He had been loved, and by the best man he knew. It was the only comfort he had, but it was better than nothing, and he clung to it tenaciously.
Over a month now. Thirty-six days, to be precise. And he was precise, because he knew each day the way one knows an old enemy. Enemies because they were so agonizingly painful, he was glad to see each one end. But he was sorry too, because each day brought him farther away from Napoleon; step by step he was leaving Napoleon behind, leaving that last kiss, that last embrace, that last smile, those words that rankled in his chest like burrs, like scorpions. "Look for me in forty-eight hours." How could he be moving forward without Napoleon? How could he avoid it? It hurt so much. Sometimes he still couldn't believe how much it hurt, how sad he was, all the time. All the time.
Eight hours into the day. Three more before he had to leave. He hated to leave, because at least at work there was the possibility of losing himself temporarily in what he was doing. But once at Napoleon's apartment he wallowed in Napoleon's essence, in the sight and scent and sound of his things, and in the morning he hated to leave that too. He hated everything. He hated his life. He walked the hall thinking of all these things, and then he looked up and saw Napoleon.
Oh. He was dreaming, after all. Illya was torn. While part of him drank in the sight greedily, because every dream of Napoleon was precious, seeming to reverse the ongoing string of days separating them, the rest of him was contemplating the fact that he was still in bed, still asleep, with the whole wearisome business of getting up, showering, riding to work, ahead of him. But how wonderful it was to see Napoleon, even in a dream. He stood there greedily taking in the sight, resisting any other input that might bring him closer to wakefulness, and then Napoleon lifted his head and smiled at him.
Everything in him responded to that smile, and when Napoleon took a step away from Davenport and extended his arms Illya flew into them without thought, without hesitation. They closed around him, so close, so warm... then he remembered, with a pang of real fear, that he had stubbed his toe that morning in the lab, stubbed it severely, and that the pain had wrung several curses from him. How could he be dreaming, then? Surreptitiously he pushed on the toe and was rewarded with another sharp twinge of pain, so sharp it made his stomach turn over. A great sob of despair was torn from him and the arms tightened.
"Illya." How real his voice was! Illya shook his head, defeated by this new enemy even as he protested.
"No, oh, no. I'm really losing my mind."
"No." Napoleon pushed him back and Illya shook his head again because even so, even with the fear of madness thundering through his veins, he didn't want to lose Napoleon's embrace, to be left alone with his insanity. But Napoleon was looking earnestly into his face and it looked just like Napoleon, it was uncanny. "You're not, Illya. Hold on a minute." He said "excuse me" over Illya's head and pulled him aside. The sound of sliding doors told Illya they were going someplace and then the doors slid again and there was quiet. They were alone. And in that new silence, in their solitude, Napoleon took him in his arms again and kissed him.
He kissed Illya long, and deep and Illya kissed him back, he couldn't help it even though he was more convinced than ever that he was going insane. He must be. This was too real to be a dream, and furthermore he was more sure than ever that the morning, with its complex mesh of people and incidents and work, had been real. Then Napoleon's mouth left his, sought his ear.
"I was never on that plane," he said urgently. "Illya, listen to me. I was never on that plane. I'm alive and well. It was all a trap and I'm sorry, that it hurt you so—I was sorry the whole time. But it was necessary."
It was necessary. It had to be Napoleon. That was what he always said when the exigencies of duty were too harrowing. Necessary, for the civilian to have died. Necessary, for the agent to be left behind. Necessary, for Illya to believe him dead.
"You... you were never on the plane?" In his mind, one last time, he saw the flames, saw Napoleon's face blackening and shriveling even as he screamed Illya's name, even as he smashed into the sea, even as fish feasted on his charred flesh. He trembled. "I saw..." he couldn't finish.
"I know you did." Napoleon held him tighter. "I knew you would. I am so sorry, Illya, my love—oh, my love." He kissed the top of Illya's head. "I wanted to tell you, but they wouldn't even consider it—and they were right, unfortunately. It had to be real. Your grief, Charles, Jillian—it all had to be real to be convincing."
"I smelled a trap," Napoleon said. "I couldn't put my finger on it, but something was hinky. Not with Benedi. He was scared shitless and that was no lie. But with the messengers, with the transport... something was wrong. So I contacted Davenport secretly and the result was a robot pilot. The plane could never have landed, it would have just circled over the Atlantic until it ran out of fuel. But it was a moot point because, as you know, it exploded."
"It went down in flames," Illya murmured, and trembled again. "It went down in flames and there were no survivors."
"There was no one on board. Benedi and I were still in London, in hiding. We were waiting for the enemy to show themselves, which I was sure they would do once they were convinced Benedi was dead. He was the one they were after. I was just the escort. Nice to close the file on me too, I suppose, but not a priority."
"I wasn't there to rescue you," Illya whispered. "You would have looked to me to save you again, and I wasn't there."
"Illya." Napoleon took him by the shoulders, held him back so he could look earnestly into his eyes. "If I had been on that plane, my last thought would have been of relief that you weren't there. But I wasn't. Here I am, alive and well. Here we are, with our future in front of us."
He looked into Napoleon's face, and believed him. This was Napoleon, alive and well. Here he was. He'd never been on the plane. It was a ruse, that was all, a ploy to lure the enemy out of hiding. "Did it work?"
"Oh yes." Napoleon smiled grimly. "It certainly did. They weren't sure, they didn't make a move, but the memorial service did it. You, and Jillian... they bought it."
The memorial service. He remembered the white hot pain of every movement and shivered. Napoleon held him close again. "I'm sorry," he said once more and Illya shook his head.
"Don't be. It was necessary." And here he was, using the phrase. And what was this new feeling welling up inside of him? Like a bubble growing... his face felt strange and he touched it. Smiling. He was smiling. It had been so long, he had forgotten how it felt. He lifted his head and Napoleon was smiling too. "Oh," he said, and Napoleon kissed him some more. They kissed for a long time, in the deserted conference room, with Davenport and half of UNCLE waiting outside the doors. They kissed for every moment they had been apart, and in promise of the years ahead. Finally Napoleon drew back.
"I have to go," he said. "I wish I didn't, but as you can imagine, I have a debriefing ahead of me. Did you move into our apartment?"
"Yes. Thank you, Napoleon. It helped, being there. I didn't think it would—I was afraid to go in because I thought it would make me feel even worse, but it didn't. It felt as if you were loving me still."
"And I was. And I still do. I love you, Illya."
"I love you too, Napoleon." He looked into Napoleon's eyes and smiled again. Napoleon smiled back, and they smiled at one another, and then the buzzer sounded. Napoleon chuckled.
"We're keeping everyone waiting."
"You go on home. Wait for me there. I'll be in time for dinner. I'll bring it. Yes?"
"Yes," Illya said, and smiled again. "Your brother says that just the way you do. Do you want me to call him?"
"No, thank you. Davenport is taking care of that." The door buzzed again and Napoleon made an impatient sound. "I'll take some time off," he said as he straightened his collar, and then fixed Illya's lab coat, settled it more evenly on his shoulders. "We'll take some time. Go someplace quiet, just the two of us. I'll feed you up, and we'll sleep late, and when we come back we'll be ready for our future."
"Our future," Illya echoed. It was all he could do. His senses were reeling, his mind was empty of everything but the one essential fact—Napoleon was here. Napoleon wasn't dead, Napoleon was here, right here talking about their future.
"Yes. Yours and mine. The fieldwork is over—they promised me that when this all went so awry. Thrush knew Benedi was defecting because someone recognized me. It's ridiculous. Everyone knows us. How effective can we be as undercover agents when we're as well known as... as that? We'll be stationed right here in New York; you in Science—you can practically write your own job description, Illya, they desperately don't want to lose you to one of the research institutes that are always trying to woo you away—and me in Administration. I'll have Davenport's job one day, they practically promised me."
"They don't want to lose you, either," Illya said.
"No. They don't. So although this isn't the place or the time I would have chosen..." the buzzer went off again, much longer this time. "This is essentially a proposal. Yes?"
"Yes." They smiled at one another some more, and then Napoleon stepped back and pressed the door open button.
Davenport had been irritated by the long delay. He had tried to be patient, and understanding—Illya Kuryakin's grief had truly been traumatic to witness, and although Waverly had clearly expected it he himself had not. So he had been tolerant of that initial embrace, and tolerant still of the way Solo had whisked him off to an empty conference room. But it had been nearly an hour now, and Solo's debriefing still lay ahead of them, and he for one wanted to get home at a decent time. Surely they could have their reunion later, when all was wrapped up. So he had buzzed, and buzzed again, and finally left his finger on the panel for a very long time and when even that didn't bring them out he had been getting ready to override the lock when it opened.
His irritation melted away at the sight of Kuryakin's face. He was incandescent with happiness. The lines of strain and misery were gone, the blue eyes were alight and his smile was brilliant. Davenport had to smile too, seeing it. Then he tried again for sternness. "Agent Solo. Surely this could have waited."
"No sir," Solo returned and he was positively grinning. Davenport blinked at him. "It couldn't. But I'm all yours now. Illya, I will see you at home."
"All right. Mr. Davenport..."
"Goodnight, Agent Kuryakin."
"Goodnight, sir." He headed down the hall and again Davenport had to smile. He was bouncing a little with every step and from the startled double takes he got as he went Davenport knew he was still smiling.
"Let's get this over with," Solo said and Davenport gave him a hard look. It certainly wasn't his fault it was a full hour later than it should be. But those dark eyes were twinkling, and reluctantly he accorded another smile. "I want to get home." Then Solo looked at him very seriously. "Home," he repeated. "With Illya. Both of us, home."
"I see," Davenport said, and he did. "Congratulations." What else could he say? They weren't field partners anymore and it was clear that their feelings for one another went far deeper than mere friendship. Just as well, he thought practically as he and Solo walked towards the Board's chambers. Solo's wide array of female companions had always posed security issues. Now both could be guarded as one, and with Kuryakin's security clearance matching Solo's it could be handled quite expeditiously. Yes, he thought as he followed Solo onto the elevator. A very sensible arrangement all around.
When he walked into Napoleon's—theirs, he corrected himself—apartment a wave of panic overcame him. It seemed so unlikely here, where he had spent all those lonely evenings, that Napoleon was home. Had he had some sort of psychotic break after all? Did he want to see Napoleon, hold Napoleon, so desperately that he had imagined their meeting? Napoleon was never on the plane. But how could that be, when he had seen it so clearly, could still see it, if he set his mind to it? He was afraid, very afraid, that instead of a wondrous reunion with his lost lover he had completely cracked up, made a fool of himself in headquarters and was, after all, alone. Forever, irrevocably, alone. He shivered and then could not stop shivering. It turned into bone cold shaking and, not knowing what else to do, he went into the bathroom and turned on the shower.
While he waited for it to heat up he looked at his face in the mirror. He looked just the same as always. The dark circles under his eyes, his mouth drawn down in a permanent droop—no mark of kisses or of joy, just the same sorrow haunted face. His mouth drooped further. Shoulders slumped, he turned and went into the shower.
Under the steaming hot spray his mind cleared slightly. Surely it hadn't all been a hallucination. If he were that crazy, they would never have let him go home. If Davenport had seen him embracing—what? Empty air? Some unsuspecting and horrified co-worker?—he would have had him locked in UNCLE's secure ward, heavily sedated.
Maybe he was. That thought sent him to his knees in the shower, stricken into horrified immobility. Maybe right now he was in some padded cell, drugged to the nines, with doctors observing him through thick security glass while he stared into space and thought he was taking a shower. Oh no, he thought and shook his head in helpless denial. Oh no, please no, not my mind, please... then a banging at the bathroom door made him jump so violently he banged his head on the tile wall. "Ow!" he said involuntarily and the door opened.
Napoleon peered around the corner. "Illya? Are you all right?"
The world fell back into place with an almost audible thud. Of course he hadn't lost his mind, what had he been thinking? Napoleon had not been killed, he had not been on the plane. He had suspected danger, scented a trap with that preternatural awareness he had, and had pulled his contact into hiding with him. It made perfect sense. Besides, that whack on the head had really hurt. It still hurt. He rubbed it, glad of the pain because it was so blessedly real and ordinary.
"Illya?" Napoleon came in and stared at him, on his knees in the shower. "What's wrong?"
"I hit my head," he said and Napoleon turned off the water and inspected him.
"Hmm," he said, and rubbed the sore spot. "You'll have a lump. Did you fall?"
"Um, yes." It made as much sense as anything else. "You—you're really here, right? I thought maybe I imagined it." He laughed a little to show how ridiculous he knew that was but Napoleon didn't laugh. He looked at Illya very earnestly, as if he understood completely. Napoleon always understood him. He had never been understood before, had always maintained his air of mystery, been pleased to be considered a cipher, but Napoleon had seen right into him from the very start.
"Yes," Napoleon said quietly. "I'm here. It hardly seems real to me, either. I've been in that little room, not daring to turn on lights, not doing anything but creeping along the floor to the john, trying to keep Benedi from losing it and bolting, thinking every sound was them. The only time I heard another voice was during the late night radio calls from headquarters, and that was all in whispers and codes until sometimes I wasn't sure what we were saying. I knew how you would be feeling. I knew, because if our positions were reversed I'd—I couldn't even find words for my grief. I knew—and I worried, too, that you'd—not that I think you would, because I think better of you than that, but it would be tempting, so I worried. Sometimes it seemed inevitable, that I would finally come home and you would be gone, because of me. I'm sorry. I insult you, I know."
"I thought about it." Napoleon should know that, in case it made him change his mind. "I thought about it a lot. But it seemed I had my duty to carry out, and no right not to. But you're right, it was tempting. I missed you so much." The absurdity of that statement, the enormity of the understatement, stopped his words and when Napoleon pulled him up, pulled him into an embrace he went with relief. He didn't have to talk. He didn't have to explain himself because Napoleon understood him. And he understood Napoleon, too. Napoleon would have felt guilty, although it wasn't his fault. Napoleon would have felt responsible, although the situation was not of his making. Napoleon would have felt he should have found another way, although there wasn't one. He kissed Napoleon's throat.
"It's all right now," he said, and it was. Everything was all right now. Napoleon was home, they were together. Everything was all right. Everything was wonderful. He smiled up at Napoleon, and Napoleon tightened his arms and kissed him.
Napoleon's scent, and Napoleon's taste, filled his world. He opened his mouth, greedy for more, sucked on Napoleon's tongue, groaned aloud when Napoleon nibbled on first his lower, then his upper lip. Napoleon's business suit felt strange against his naked body, scratchy and incredibly arousing. He rubbed himself against it, against Napoleon and felt his erection, pressing against those faultlessly creased trousers. His hips moved restlessly, his own cock hard and throbbing.
"I want you inside me," he whispered, pressing harder in a fruitless attempt to be closer still. He wrapped one leg around Napoleon's hips and moaned at the increased contact, at the way Napoleon's suit felt against his inner thigh. "I thought about it, I dreamed about it, I wished we had... do it now. Fuck me now."
For answer Napoleon bent down, put an arm under Illya's knees and tightened the one around his back and scooped him up, off his feet. His knees buckled under Illya's weight and he staggered as he tried to make his way out of the bathroom. Illya began laughing and Napoleon laughed too, then had to lean Illya against the wall to try for a better grip.
"Put me down," Illya said, and felt Napoleon shake his head as he determinedly tried to maneuver him through the doorway. "Put me... ow!" He had hit his head again on the door jamb. "Napoleon. You don't have to carry me over some damn threshold. Put me down!"
"Hold on," Napoleon panted and with another heave hoisted Illya higher. This hold was better and he made it down the hall, through his bedroom doorway without any more mishaps, to drop Illya onto the bed. Illya bounced twice, laughing again and rubbing his head.
"You are crazy. Do you know that?"
"Yes," Napoleon said and stripped off his clothes. It amused Illya to see that despite his obvious urgency he still took the time to put his jacket, vest and pants neatly over a chair back, to drop his underwear and socks into the hamper, and to push his shoes under the bed. "I know I am. Crazy about you. Crazy about the life we're going to have together. As for the threshold..."
"I'm a traditional kind of guy, Illya Kuryakin. Traditional and a little sentimental. You're going to have to get used to that."
"I think I'll manage," Illya said and opened his arms, opened his legs, wordlessly urging Napoleon to stop talking and come down on top of him. Napoleon knelt on the bed, reaching over Illya to get at the bedside table. He opened the drawer, and fell full length on top.
"Oof," Illya complained. "You certainly didn't miss any meals while you were away."
"Not much else to do. You, however..." one hand explored Illya's ribs and abdomen while the other rummaged in the drawer... "need feeding. I'll see to it."
"Will you?" Illya said, and just that little promise warmed him all over. It was true he hadn't been eating well, and had lost weight. He was aware of that. And how nice that Napoleon planned to fix it, that Napoleon cared about it. It was reassuring, too, because it certainly wasn't the kind of thing he would imagine. No one had ever cared in the least whether he were hungry or full, fat or thin. He sighed with contentment and stretched luxuriously, feeling Napoleon fumbling with the little tube he had extracted from the drawer. He was so aroused he thought he would die waiting for him, but when Napoleon's finger, coated with something silky and cool, touched his entrance, he wanted to wait forever. No one had ever cared about that, either. But Napoleon cared. Napoleon wanted it to be good for him, wanted it not to hurt him, more, wanted him to enjoy it. He arched upward as Napoleon's finger continued to tease, dipping in, then withdrawing, making piercingly sweet little circles around and around, in, then out... he cried out wordlessly, pleadingly, hips rising again.
There was a pause while Napoleon presumably applied the ointment to himself, then put the top on and dropped the tube onto the floor. Illya heard the soft plop of it landing on the carpet, and then the tip of Napoleon was there in place of his finger. He teased again, just a little, nudging then withdrawing, trailing it back, then returning. Illya grabbed his buttocks, squeezed, pulled and Napoleon entered him. He did it slowly, and when Illya opened his eyes he saw how Napoleon was watching him, brow furrowed in concentration, mouth tight with the effort it was taking to control this. "Yes," Illya gasped, bucking under him, pulling at him, desperate for more, more of Napoleon, all of Napoleon, and Napoleon gave it to him, gave him more, gave him everything.
His blood thundered in his veins, his heart pounded in his chest. He writhed under Napoleon's control as Napoleon kept pushing, filling him until it was almost intolerable, almost unbearable but not quite, not quite... he shuddered and Napoleon held still, absolutely still, letting Illya adjust to him, letting Illya make the next move and only when Illya gasped again "Yes, yes..." did he move. And still he kept control, moving slowly, pulling almost out, sliding back in, while a burning heat ignited deep inside Illya, like a sun there, like a little nova there and every stroke inflamed it, pierced it, piercing him. His lips parted in a soundless cry and Napoleon's mouth covered them, warm, the heat traveling through him to join that other heat, and the world exploded in flame.
Napoleon was pounding into him now and Napoleon was crying out into his mouth, into his open mouth. He thought he heard someone screaming, a muffled sound, muffled by Napoleon's lips and tongue. He clung to Napoleon, following every thrust, legs wrapped around his waist, heels digging in, fingers clutching, thighs clamped tight, holding on, holding on desperately and Napoleon was holding on to him with equal desperation. They were one, they were one, they were one... forever. Forever.
He fell back, released from that iron grip, releasing Napoleon too. He felt Napoleon get up but didn't worry because Napoleon would be back, Napoleon would be right back, he would always be right back. He heard water running and then the warm wet cloth passed over him, cleaning him, making him feel so well cared for, so cherished, so loved. "I love you," he said, wanting to give that back and Napoleon slid under the covers, drew them up over him. He was glad, because as the sweat cooled he was chilly so he pressed close to Napoleon's heat and smiled as the blanket was securely tucked around him.
"I love you too, Illya," Napoleon whispered and he smiled again, turned even closer into Napoleon's arms, and fell asleep.
Napoleon lay on his side, watching the man beside him. Illya's lips were curved slightly, smiling as he slept. His hair was tousled, his eyelashes gold against his skin. He stirred, breath catching as at a residual echo of that passion and Napoleon felt it resonate within him, too. He was home. Home. It was as if he had been wandering his whole life, and now he was home. He had found his safe haven in Illya's arms, in Illya's body, in Illya's love, and he was never losing it again. He lay back finally, drawing Illya closer, feeling Illya turn so his cheek rested on Napoleon's shoulder, one arm draped across Napoleon's waist, holding him securely. Napoleon tightened his grip, holding Illya in his turn and they were both held fast, both kept securely, both at home. Home together, home forever, home at last. Home.