Outside the Touch of Time
"Hi," Napoleon greeted him as he walked away, leaving Illya standing in the doorway. "Come on in."
Illya followed his partner into his apartment, closing the door behind him and setting the alarms. "Why aren't you ready yet?" He'd been surprised to see Napoleon in a t-shirt and with no shoes on.
"I got a call from headquarters about twenty minutes ago. Mr. Waverly doesn't need us in until nine-thirty." Napoleon turned, walking backwards towards the bathroom. "There's coffee if you want. I'll be out in a couple of minutes."
Illya took off his coat, draping it over the couch as he made his way into the kitchen. He served himself a cup of coffee then opened the refrigerator to scrounge around for something to eat. When he came up empty, he grabbed his cup and proceeded back into the living room. He took a seat in the recliner that he vowed he'd someday manage to sneak out of Napoleon's apartment and leaned back, more than willing to use the extra time to relax if nothing else.
"Why the change of schedule?" he asked loud enough for Napoleon to hear him.
Napoleon walked out of the bathroom, doing up his tie as he joined Illya. "Something about Mr. Waverly being stuck in a meeting." He undid his pants and began tucking in his shirt. "He must have something in mind for us that's going to take most of the day. Why else would he not want us in before we see him?"
Illya took a drink of his coffee then placed his cup on the small table next to him. "As if we have nothing else to do; it would have been nice to spend the time attempting to catch up on our paperwork."
"Yes, wouldn't it have?" Napoleon responded, his voice laced with just a hint of sarcasm. Fully dressed now except for his shoes, he took a seat across from Illya. On the table in front of him, next to his own cup of coffee, lay several stacks of envelopes and small packages. "I thought I'd used the time to sort my mail." He grabbed a handful of letters. "I hate coming back to so much of this."
"We were gone rather long on the last affair." He let his gaze wander over the piles of mail. "You do seem to get rather a lot."
"Well, you know, bills, family—" He looked up for a moment. "Or maybe you don't."
Illya grinned. If he had any family members out there, he didn't know about them. And he preferred using cash to pay for things. He watched fascinated as Napoleon sorted the letters and packages into different piles, some placed in smaller stacks to the side but with the majority of the mail going into the ones directly in front of Napoleon.
"Is there some method to your madness?"
"Of course." Napoleon picked up the smallest stack of envelopes which had been sitting to the side. "These are bills. They're not due yet but I'll put them on my desk so I'll know to get to them as soon as I have the time." He put them down and motioned toward the half dozen stacks in front of the unsorted mail. "These are sorted by who sent them, businesses here, then acquaintances, close friends and then finally family."
"I didn't realize you had such a large family." The last stack was by far the largest.
"Unfortunately, yes," Napoleon responded as he continued at his task. "Sometimes I wish—" Napoleon quieted suddenly.
"What's the matter?"
Napoleon threw the mail down on the table then covered his face with his hands. "Damn."
"What, what is it?"
"It's from my parents." He scrubbed at his face then he brought his hands down and picked up the letter.
Illya frowned. "And this is bad because?"
"Because I already know what it is," he answered as he slit open the envelope and pulled a card out. He scanned the note then carefully reinserted it into the envelope. He sighed as he threw the envelope down again and slumped back against the couch. "It's my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary."
"That would mean," Illya scrunched his brow as he figured it out, "that they had been married...fifteen years when you were born?"
"Yes, I was something of a surprise."
"I would imagine, though I don't understand why that would make their anniversary a problem."
"I don't get along with my family very well, except for Aunt Amy...and my mother, of course." Napoleon suddenly got up and approached the small desk tucked into a corner of the room. He quickly flipped through the pages of the calendar then swore softly to himself.
Illya twisted around so he could see his friend. "What's the matter?"
"Amy's going to be out of town the weekend of the party." Napoleon swore again and then walked back and plopped dejectedly on the couch. "Wonderful, just wonderful."
"Amy is your father's sister, is she not? Won't she find some way to be there for something so important?"
"Normally she would, but she's taking an old friend on a cruise. The woman only recently lost her husband. I don't think she'd be up to going to an anniversary party."
Illya nodded. "You're probably right."
Hey, wait a minute." Napoleon brightened. "Maybe we'll be out of town that weekend."
"I'm not sure that's something you should count on. But surely it can't be that bad. After all, they are your family."
Napoleon shook his head. "It's worse." He leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees. "It wouldn't be so bad if it was just my folks and my sister, but my brother will be there, along with about a hundred other relatives that I'd rather not see."
"I don't understand." When Illya saw the grimace that twisted Napoleon's face, he immediately backed off. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. Even though I don't have a family, I understand that it's a relationship fraught with pitfalls."
"That's a nice way of putting it." Napoleon gave him a fleeting smile. "And, no, it's not that I want to keep anything from you, it's that...well, it's complicated. For one thing, my brother and I don't get along at all. He's twelve years older than I am so it's not like we actually grew up together. I think he saw me as more of an annoyance than anything else. I idolized him as a kid, which probably didn't help because I tried to follow him around as much as I could which irritated him no end. Then when I was older I think I resented the fact that he didn't want anything to do with me." He turned his face away and his voice became almost a whisper. "I think I hated him for awhile."
"And you have never been able to work things out?"
Napoleon shrugged. "After awhile I didn't see the point. And he certainly never did."
"And your sister?"
"She's okay." Napoleon seemed to relax, leaning back and putting his stockinged feet up on the table. "We've never been what you'd call close but she'd try to run interference when things got really bad between me and Alex."
Illya lifted his brow. "Alex, as in—"
"Yes, as in Alexander. And before you ask, my sister's name is Victoria. My parents seemed to have had delusions of grandeur...at least as far as their offspring was concerned."
"So what are you going to do? You can't very well miss your parents' golden anniversary, can you?"
"No, I can't. At least if Aunt Amy were going to be there I could stick with her. It looks like I'm on my own this time."
"When is it, exactly?"
"Two weeks from this coming weekend."
"Napoleon," Illya hesitated, not sure how his suggestion would be taken, "what if I was to go with you?"
At first, Illya thought his friend was going to refuse out of hand. The look on Napoleon's face was—Illya wasn't sure what it was. He looked almost heartened, yet there was something else there, as if hope warred with...what?
Napoleon swallowed hard. "I'm almost desperate enough to take you up on it."
"I can't imagine it could be any worse than many of the situations we have found ourselves in. And have managed to get ourselves out of, I should add."
He stared at Illya for several moments. "It would only be for a few days. And you'd only have to put up with a party on Saturday night and a private luncheon on Sunday. We'd be back Monday night at the latest."
"Napoleon, I wouldn't have offered if I thought I couldn't handle it."
Taking a deep breath, Napoleon gave a nod. "Okay, if you think you can handle it, then, yes, I accept your offer."
"Good." Illya glanced at his watch. "But I think it was time we were on our way."
They both stood. Illya walked around to get his jacket while Napoleon slipped on his shoes. At the door, Napoleon grabbed his own jacket and shrugged into it as they exited.
As they started down the hallway, Napoleon stopped and placed his hand on Illya's arm.
"I just wanted to say...I just wanted to say thanks."
Illya could only wonder how it was that Napoleon hadn't yet realized that he would do this and so much more. "Any time, my friend."
As Illya had forewarned, things did not go as Napoleon wished, and two weeks later they found themselves bound for Florida. By the time they landed in Miami it was almost two o'clock. They had a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant before renting a car and starting the almost four hour drive to Napoleon's parents' residence in Key West.
Illya couldn't recall ever taking this particular road before. Leaving Miami in the convertible Napoleon had insisted on, they headed south along the coast. About thirty minutes later they drove onto the Overseas Highway.
Since Napoleon was driving, Illya took the opportunity to enjoy the view. Everglade savannas changed to open sea, changed to picturesque islands. Illya had always suspected his friend came from wealth; he had an idea that his suspicions were soon to be proved true.
He glanced over at his friend. Illya had been more than surprised when Napoleon had picked him up that morning not dressed in his regulation Brooks Brothers suit. Instead, he wore a pair of light tan chinos with a cotton shirt of pastel blue. But perhaps because one would expect the reverse, the casual wear seemed to add an extra elegance to his partner. He smiled to himself. Napoleon had such confidence in his looks, he could probably pull off dressing in rags.
After awhile, Illya began to notice that the closer they got to their destination the more nervous Napoleon became. Possibly no one else would have noticed but after three years of Napoleon watching, it would have been impossible for Illya to miss the signs; the focused intensity that usually only surfaced during a particularly hazardous mission, the lack of patter and the almost indiscernible tightening of his eyes.
"Did you tell your parents what time we'd be arriving?"
"I called them from the airport." Napoleon sped up a bit as they finished passing though Big Pine Key and started the last stretch into Key West. "They knew we wouldn't be getting there until almost seven, so they were going to go ahead and eat dinner without us. Sorry tovarisch, but all you'll be getting tonight are leftovers."
"I have a feeling I won't mind at all," Illya responded dryly. "What are your parents like, Napoleon?"
Napoleon bit his lip, not answering for several seconds. "My mother's okay. Just an ordinary housewife...who actually does wear pearls during the day and wouldn't be caught dead in slacks. My dad, I suppose the best word to describe him is distant. I don't know, maybe all dads are that way. They're too busy bringing home the bacon to have time to spend with their kids."
"What does your father do?"
"Did, he's retired. He worked in a bank." Napoleon snorted. "Who am I kidding? He owned the bank."
Illya's brow shot up. Apparently, his friend was better off than he had imagined. "So why do you work for UNCLE?"
"What do you mean?"
"Obviously, you do not have to work. Why put yourself in danger, day after day, when you could easily find something far less dangerous to do?"
"Right, like work for my dad? No, thanks. Alex went that route and he's not exactly the happiest person in the world. Besides, I enjoy what I do. I always have." He glanced at Illya. "You're one to talk. You could be safely buried away in academia, shielded in your ivory tower. I don't see you putting in your resignation."
Illya laughed. It was true. His degree had been a means to an end. It had never been a dream of his to teach or even do research. Like Napoleon, not for him a life behind a desk. "Fair enough. And getting back to your family, what about Victoria? What does she do with her time?"
They'd reached Key West and Napoleon made a turn into a residential area. "Not much. I love my sister dearly, but she's really pretty useless. She got married, pregnant and divorced all in the span of two years. Now she spends her time jet-setting around the world, having one shallow relationship after another, and spending money like there's no tomorrow. And before you say it, yes, I realize that could describe me, too, but somehow," he frowned, "somehow, it doesn't seem the same."
"No, it's not. Your jet-setting is hardly for your entertainment, and while you do seem to, how shall I put it, have a full social life, I've never had the impression that it was because you couldn't settle down, only that you haven't again found the person you'd like to settle down with. The money part, though, that's the same," Illya added.
"Oh, ha ha."
"You say she has a child?"
"A son, David. He's twenty now and in his third year at Princeton. He's nothing like my sister...or her ex."
Illya mulled over all he'd been told. He'd been given bits and pieces of Napoleon's history over the three years of their partnership; he'd known that his friend had been married and widowed, and he'd met Napoleon's Aunt Amy on several occasions. He'd even heard him mention a cousin or two, though now that he thought about it never anything about his siblings. But since that day two weeks before, he'd learned so much more. It was a lot to take in.
"Okay, here we are." Napoleon pulled over and stopped the car.
Illya slowly exited the car, his focus caught and held by the house in front of them. It was a two, no, make that three-story white colonial structure, though the third story was probably the attic. Porches swung around three sides on the first and second floor, their white railing and posts matching the picket fence that surrounded the front yard. Black shutters hung from the sides of the windows and doors on both floors. Towards the back, the house flared out on the ground floor in each direction. Not quite a mansion, it nevertheless spoke of wealth.
"This is where you grew up?"
Napoleon gazed at the house. "Here and in upstate New York. My parents didn't buy this until I was almost in high school. Come on," he walked to the back of the car and popped the trunk. "Let's get this over with."
Illya walked over and grabbed his valise, Napoleon already having pulled his own out. His friend slammed the trunk closed, took a deep breath and led Illya up to the house.
The door opened while they were still making their way up the porch stairs and an older woman, well into her sixties, stepped out. The difference in years did nothing to erase the unmistakable fact that this was Napoleon's mother; the same expressive eyes looked out from a face with the same features, though somewhat softened. She spread her arms.
Illya looked at his partner. Napoleon grinned, then dropped his bag at his feet and took the three steps that brought him across the porch and into the woman's arms.
"Oh, Napoleon, I'm so glad you've come." The woman held onto Napoleon as if she was afraid he'd disappear.
"I told you I would." Napoleon pulled back, though stayed in the woman's embrace. He turned toward Illya. "Mother, this is my partner, Illya Kuryakin. Illya," he smiled down at the woman who barely came to his shoulders, "this is my mother."
"I am so pleased to meet you, Mrs. Solo." Illya extended his hand which was taken in a gentle but firm handshake. "And I appreciate you allowing me to join into your family celebration."
"Any friend of Napoleon's will always be welcome. And where are my manners? Come in, both of you." She finally released her son and held the door open for them while they brought their luggage in. "Leave it here for now." She looked toward Napoleon. "Your father and sister are out on the deck having after dinner drinks. You can relax and tell us all about your drive."
"Alex isn't coming?" Napoleon asked as they made their way through the house.
"Of course he is. He called earlier, their flight was delayed so he and Sarah probably won't get here until late tonight or early tomorrow morning," Napoleon's mother responded as she led them outside and onto a very large deck.
It ran the width of the house and off to one side Illya could see the silhouettes of two people against a fire that danced in the fire pit behind them. Their voices were barely audible over the rush of waves from the ocean not fifty feet away. As they drew nearer to them, the larger of the two turned and then stood up.
"It looks like your mother was right after all. You actually made it this time." The man approached and gave Napoleon a quick hug. "Glad to see you, son."
"Same here, Dad." Napoleon waved at the woman, who had turned around but had not vacated the lounger in which she sat. "Hello, Victoria."
"Napoleon." Her gaze slid over to Illya. "Who's your friend?"
"Oh, yes, Dad, Victoria, this is Illya Kuryakin, a coworker. Illya, my dad and sister, Victoria."
"Mr. Solo." Illya shook Napoleon's father's hand, though only bowed his head slightly in the direction of the sister. "Victoria."
"Come, you two," Napoleon's father motioned them to take two of the vacant loungers. Mrs. Solo had taken the one next to her husband's, so Napoleon took the one next to her, leaving Illya with Victoria on his left.
"Let me get you both a drink." Napoleon's father made for the bar built against the house. "Scotch all right for you, Napoleon?" At Napoleon's nod, he looked at Illya. "And you, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"Vodka, if you have it, and, please, Illya' will do."
"All right, Illya it is and one vodka coming right up."
"It would impossible to imagine you're anything but Russian," Victoria commented.
"Ukrainian to be precise. I was born in Kiev."
"Have you two worked together long?" Mr. Solo asked as he handed Illya his drink then went around to take his own seat.
Illya looked pointedly at Napoleon. Coworkers? He didn't have a clue as to how to respond to these people's questions.
"Ah, it's been about three years," Napoleon finally answered. And from that point on Illya let him take the lead, answering their questions as vaguely as he could only when called on and depending on Napoleon to come up with a halfway believable response the rest of the time. Mostly, he just sat back and studied the interaction between the four Solos.
Napoleon's father was taller than his son by at least three inches but he carried himself with the same easy grace. Illya could see no other resemblance; it wasn't immediately apparent, as it had been with his mother, that they were related. While Illya had always thought his partner an attractive man, his father was the sort that turned heads. In his youth, he had probably been beautiful.
Where Illya found a true resemblance was between Mr. Solo and his daughter. Victoria was striking, though not in the conventional sense, her looks a composite of both parents. No, it was more in their bearing. While Victoria lacked the stunning looks of the father, both were tall aristocrats who bore themselves with the unmistakable air of those who knew their place in the world and never doubted that they were deserving of that position.
The differences in attitude made for a sometimes awkward conversation, especially between Napoleon and his father. It was apparent that, while the two did love each other, there was a world of difference in their outlooks and expectations. He caught his partner more than once deferring to his father in order to avoid arguing with him. Luckily it was late enough that after only an hour or so they used the desire for sustenance and need for sleep as pretext and excused themselves.
"Am I in my old room?" Napoleon asked his mother as they stood to leave.
"Of course. But I'm afraid the two of you are going to have to double up. We're in the process of redecorating part of the house and with Alex and Victoria also here, there aren't enough rooms to go around. That won't be a problem, will it?" She looked from one to the other.
"No, Mother, it's fine." Napoleon put his hand on Illya's shoulder and pulled him around toward the house. "Come on, I'll give you a quick tour before bed."
"Have a good night, Mr. and Mrs. Solo, Victoria," Illya called out as he was hustled into the house. Once inside he added, "the only way I'm going along with this is if part of the tour is through the kitchen."
Napoleon laughed. "That was going to be our first stop."
The kitchen was a pleasant surprise. Illya had been expecting something more modern, something along the lines of an olive and gold monstrosity with lots of Formica that was so much in vogue right now. This one, while large, had been allowed to retain the charm of its original construction. The appliances were from a bygone era, when function mattered more than form and the large, wooden farm table invited one to sit and stay awhile. The bump-out which included a breakfast nook only added to the room's cheeriness.
"Take a seat, I'll throw something together." Napoleon walked over and opened the refrigerator door.
Illya did, well prepared to allow Napoleon his space. He'd always enjoyed watching his friend in the kitchen. Napoleon was quick and efficient when he cooked, with a graceful lan that complimented how good the food always ended up tasting.
"Napoleon, why did you call me your partner' to your mother but your coworker' to your father and sister? Don't they know what you do for a living?"
Napoleon, precariously balancing a platter of meat, a loaf of bread and several jars of condiments, came over and clumsily deposited everything on the table. He pulled a knife out of the rack on the counter and started on the sandwiches. "My parents do, though I think my dad tries not to think about it. It's Victoria I haven't told and have no plans to. The woman can't keep a secret to save her life...or mine, as the case may be."
"Does your brother know?"
"Alex? Are you kidding?" Napoleon snorted derisively. "He probably wouldn't believe me even if I told him. Alex sees me the way he's always seen me, as the little brother he didn't want and certainly didn't want around."
Illya's image of Napoleon's golden childhood, a silver spoon stuck firmly in his mouth, was slowly crumbling.
"So what should I say we do?"
Napoleon shrugged. "I usually say I work in tourism. We certainly travel around enough to qualify."
"That's certainly true. Spasibo," Illya added as he took the sandwich Napoleon handed him. "Very well, we can be two intrepid travel agents who put their lives on the line for their customers."
"Sounds good to me."
Napoleon returned everything to the refrigerator then joined Illya at the table. They made short work of their meal, even Napoleon eating more than talking. After they finished they cleaned up and headed upstairs, their tour put off for another time.
At the top of the landing Illya was surprised when Napoleon continued climbing, taking the second flight to the upper floor.
"The attic, Napoleon? Your room was in the attic?"
"It is an actual room, you know." Napoleon chuckled at the look Illya gave him. "Hey, I was twelve years old. Having a room at the top of the house was considered cool. Besides, no one else wanted it."
"Oh, great. I'm going to be spending the next two days in a crawl space."
Napoleon gave a full-blown laugh. "I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Anyway, it turned out to have something a lot of the other bedrooms don't...its own bathroom."
Illya perked up at that, though continued complaining about all the stairs he would forced to take as he followed his friend to the room.
Illya shifted onto his back and opened his eyes. Light filtered in through the front window, the tree right outside fortunately blocking most of the morning sun. It occurred to him that he'd found the reason for Napoleon's penchant for room-darkening drapes; twenty years before the tree may not have been doing its job quite so well.
He looked toward his partner. Napoleon was buried beneath the covers with only the top of his head peeking out. He was turned away but the regular and deep rise and fall of the blankets told Illya that his friend was still asleep.
The night before, Illya had been surprised at how little the room must have changed from when Napoleon had last occupied it; it was more a boy's room than a man's. Now, as he let his gaze wander drowsily about, he wondered how much he could glean of his partner from it. They'd been busy unpacking the night before and had then almost immediately gone to bed. Illya hoped that sometime during their stay he'd have the opportunity to study the room more thoroughly.
His stomach gave a loud growl. He looked over at the clock and realized that it had been almost ten hours since he'd last ate. Carefully climbing out from under the covers, he quietly gathered his clothes and entered the bathroom, making sure the door made no noise as he closed it. Twenty minutes later he was dressed and ready to go.
As Napoleon still slept, Illya decided to take his partner at his word, that the kitchen was open twenty-four seven and that Illya was more than welcome to make use of it whenever he wanted. He silently let himself out of the room and headed downstairs.
The second floor was quiet, the rest of the family still obviously asleep, yet as he approached the kitchen area Illya saw that a light was already on; a cook, perhaps? Given the family's wealth, he wouldn't be at all surprised. But when he entered the room what he found was a man sitting at the breakfast nook. Tall, exceedingly good looking, almost a carbon copy of Napoleon's father. He had a cup of coffee in his hands and was staring out the window but turned at Illya's approach.
"Good morning," the man greeted while watching Illya rather guardedly at the same time. Still in his pajamas, the man's robe was untied and he'd apparently not expected anyone else up this early.
"Good morning." Illya made a beeline for the coffee pot sitting in the corner. "I hope I'm not disturbing you but Napoleon mentioned that the kitchen was always open."
"Ah, you're Leon's friend."
Illya was surprised at the use of Leon'; he'd never heard his friend called that before. He'd also caught the slight emphasis on the word friend.' "Yes, we work together," he responded as he poured himself a cup of coffee and then went to join the man at the table. "Illya Kuryakin," he stated as he sat down. "And I'm assuming you are Alex."
"That's right. My wife and I got in a couple of hours ago."
"Will your wife be joining us?"
"Eventually. Unlike me, she doesn't have a problem with insomnia. Actually, I doubt anyone else will be up for a couple of hours at least." Alex eyed him curiously. "Kuryakin.' What kind of name is that?"
Here it comes. "I am Russian but I have been in this country for many years."
To Illya's surprise, Alex grinned. "I'm surprised Leon had anything to do with you, what with him being in Korea and all."
"Napoleon is not one to judge a person strictly on where they come from. I would have thought you would know that, being his brother."
"Leon and I have never been what you'd call close. I left home when he was still a kid. God, he was a brat. I haven't seen anything since that would make me think he's changed." Alex's hand tightened around his coffee cup. "He's always gotten whatever he wanted."
Illya fought a scowl. He wasn't used to people talking about his partner in this way. He didn't like it; he didn't like it at all. He wanted to call the man on it, make him realize how very wrong he was about Napoleon. But this was Alex's home, or had been, so instead Illya got up and walked over to prepare himself something to eat. Alex, seemingly once again lost in his own thoughts, didn't appear to notice.
At the refrigerator, Illya pulled out a carton of eggs and a loaf of bread. He stood pondering a couple of seconds before adding the package of bacon. He took down two pans from the rack above the stove and started cooking the bacon in one.
He worked in silence. From time to time he'd throw a look Alex's way, but the man had retreated into his own little world. As far as Illya was concerned, he could stay there. When the bacon was almost ready, he began heating the second pan for his eggs.
"You can fix me a couple of those, too."
Illya looked up. Napoleon stood in the doorway, a teasing smile on his face. He started into the room but abruptly stopped when he noticed his brother. His lips tightened but he said nothing, just continued over to Illya's side. "You do the eggs, I'll make the toast. How does that sound?"
Illya nodded, reaching over to pull out two more eggs and handing Napoleon the bread. Napoleon took it over to where the toaster sat and pulled out a couple of slices. Illya saw him glance over at Alex a couple of times as he placed the bread in the slots. He pushed the handle down and then, almost hesitantly, walked over to his brother.
Alex slowly turned his head to look at his brother. "Hello, Leon. What a surprise, you actually decided to show up for once. What's the matter, the travel business slowing down?"
Even from across the room, Illya could see his partner's features tighten. He continued at his task, all the while keeping one eye on his friend.
"The travel business is just fine. I take it the banking business is doing well."
"I don't have any complaints. You shouldn't either, considering the money I'm making for all of you."
Napoleon lowered his head for a moment, as if trying to rein in his anger. "I'm sure everyone in the family appreciates the job you're doing."
"Yeah, I'll just bet they do. Keeps you rolling in dough, doesn't it? I can't imagine you make much as a travel agent."
Napoleon ignored the jab. "How's Sarah?"
"My wife? She's just fine. Too bad the same can't be said for yours."
Illya raced across the room. He'd seen that look so rarely, yet he knew that Alex was in imminent danger of losing his life. He grabbed Napoleon's arm. "You need to butter the toast. Come on, your breakfast is almost ready," he added as he tried to pull his friend away.
At first, Napoleon only stood and glared at his brother. Finally, he took a deep, shuddering breath and allowed Illya to maneuver him across the room.
They took their meal at the kitchen table, rather than at the breakfast nook. A minute or so later, Alex left the room. And while they both ate everything on their plates, Illya was sure Napoleon had tasted none of it.
"How do I look?"
Illya turned to appraise his friend. Napoleon was stunning in a black tuxedo, the snowy white shirt accompanying it enhancing his dark features.
"Magnificent as always. And now that I've enlarged your ego tenfold, you can help me with this tie." Illya turned to the mirror in frustration. He'd never figure out how to get these things on straight.
Napoleon walked over and grabbed Illya by the shoulders, spinning him around until they were face to face. "How you managed to reach the advanced aged of thirty-four without learning how to tie a tie is beyond me."
Illya strained to watch while Napoleon flipped the tie in and out of itself. "My talents lie elsewhere."
"That they do, tovarisch, that they do." Napoleon finished and then laid his hands on Illya's shoulders. "I, uh, I want to apologize for my brother. He had no right behaving the way he did."
Illya had wondered when Napoleon would finally talk about what happened. He had effectively dodged any attempt on Illya's part to bring it up all day, a day spent away from the house as much as possible. He'd been given a tour of the town which had taken most of the morning. And while Illya had gotten to know Victoria a little bit better when they'd had an impromptu lunch with her at their return, he seen nothing of Alex or his wife.
"You don't owe me any apology. If anyone should apologize it should be Alex. What he said to you—"
"I know, I know. You'd think I'd be used to it by now."
"I thought you were exaggerating the problems between the two of you but it's obvious there are some serious issues involved. He won't even use your entire name."
"Yes, he caught on very early that I despised that particular diminutive. He's the only one who uses it."
"I'd never seen you react to someone so strongly. I thought you were going to hit him."
Napoleon shrugged then turned them both toward the mirror. "We'll have to fight the ladies off with a stick."
Illya glanced over at his partner. So Napoleon didn't want to talk about his brother anymore. Illya wasn't surprised. And while he was more than curious to know more, he was willing to drop it for now.
"I have never known you to raise a hand to a lady," Illya deadpanned.
Napoleon winked. "There's always a first time. Come on, let's not keep them waiting."
They made their way down, stopping at the bottom of the stairs to get their bearings. It was second nature to them, to always be on the lookout for danger, though Illya wondered at Napoleon feeling the need in the house he'd grown up in. But as Illya has long ago learned, danger could take many forms.
Continuing on, they walked through the house and into the kitchen, where Illya could not help but notice the spread put out by the caterers. He swiftly snatched an hors d'oeuvre before Napoleon forced him away from the table and out to the back deck to stand just outside the doorway. Festooned in brightly-colored lanterns, a good two-thirds of the area was taken up with dozens of round garden tables and chairs, many of which were already occupied. The remaining area held a dance floor and stage, where a large musical ensemble was already in full swing.
"Your parents do not do things by halves, do they?"
Napoleon chuckled. "I'd be surprised if my parents had much to do with this. It looks more like Victoria's work. "Speaking of which, I think I see them."
Illya followed Napoleon into the crowd. They worked their way through the tables, having to excuse themselves more than once when forced to squeeze between people. Eventually, they reached the table where Napoleon's family was sitting.
The long, rectangular table was positioned to the right of the band, directly off the dance floor. All the place settings were on the far side, so that no one sat with their back to the crowd. Illya felt awkward as he took his seat at one end next to Napoleon. Not only was he the only one at the table who wasn't family, but he felt as if it looked like they were holding court. Eyeing the rest of Napoleon's family, he wasn't sure if that wasn't the truth.
Alex sat at the far end, having an intense conversation with the woman next to him. Illya assumed it was Sarah, Alex's wife. For such a handsome man, his wife, though by no means ugly, was not the raving beauty Illya would have expected. Long dark hair framed her face and she had a look of intelligence to her. She also appeared to be able to hold her own with Alex. But there was a certain melancholy in her bearing that lllya could only imagine came from having to deal with her husband. His dislike for Alex rose another notch.
Next to Sarah was an empty chair, then Napoleon's parents, his sister, and finally Napoleon himself. All were dressed in finery, yet Illya couldn't help but think that it was his friend who shone above the rest.
The rest of the night would bear this out. While several people came up to the table, of the siblings it was only Napoleon who moved out into the rest of the room, talking with many of the guests, even dancing with several of the women. His charm far outweighed Alex's good looks or Victoria's allure.
Illya watched the proceedings from his place just inside the doorway that led into the kitchen. He'd gone inside to get a plate and now slowly munched on his food. From here, he could see Napoleon dancing with his mother while his father took Victoria on a turn around the floor. His friend seemed to be having a good time.
"He was always the one everyone liked."
Illya turned to the man standing beside him. He looked to be about sixty, short and somewhat overweight.
"You speak of Napoleon."
"Sure do. I'm sorry," the man stuck out his hand, "I'm Samuel Wycliffe, but you can call me Sam. Everyone does."
Illya took the man's hand. "Illya Kuryakin. You can call me...Illya."
Wycliffe laughed. "You're Napoleon's friend, aren't you?"
"Word travels fast, doesn't it?"
"Conrad, Napoleon's father, told me you were here. And since I know just about everyone else," he shrugged, "it wasn't hard to figure out who you were."
"It sounds as if you know Mr. Solo quite well."
"Oh, yes, we've been friends since almost the day they moved in here, some twenty-five years ago. I know he can seem sort of off-putting, but when you get to know him he's really a straight up sort of guy."
"Did you know Napoleon as well?"
"Sure did. He and my son were best friends from practically the first day they met."
"Your son, is he here?" Illya asked, intrigued.
Wycliffe sobered. "No, Kevin died in Korea."
"I'm so sorry."
"Thanks. You'd think after all these years the pain would go away but it never does, not really. You just sort of get used to it I think."
"Napoleon must have been devastated as well."
"It hit him pretty hard. He and Kevin had signed up at the same time." Wycliffe chuckled. "Conrad was livid when he found out they'd left college to enlist."
"That sounds just like Napoleon, never one to do the expected."
Wycliffe eyed him. "You and Napoleon, are you good friends?"
"Yes, I would say so. He's probably the best friend I've ever had."
Wycliffe nodded in satisfaction. "That's good to hear. Napoleon has always been the type that people are drawn to. He just has this, I don't know, magic way with people. Still, after Kevin died he seemed to be alone a lot of the time. He'd have people all around him, but he was still alone. Does that make sense to you?"
Illya was surprised at the man's astuteness. It had been several months of knowing Napoleon before Illya had realized the charm and amiability was mostly a glossy facade his friend showed to the world. Still, he was loathe to give away Napoleon's secret, even to this man. "I think Napoleon is very particular as to who he allows close, though he is always charming to everyone he meets."
Wycliffe snorted. "Especially females. Boy, did he ever have a way with the ladies. If he and Kevin were both interested in the same girl, nine times out of ten it was Napoleon who got her."
Illya looked back at his friend, who was now spinning some unknown woman around the dance floor. It seemed he was not the first friend to be left on the wayside when some pretty female happened by. He wondered if Kevin had felt the loss as much as he did.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I think I'm going to go out there and give him some competition. Nice talking to you, Illya."
And with that, Wycliffe stepped out to join in the dancing. Illya wondered if he should, too. He had decided against it when he saw Napoleon waving him over. In all probability he had found some young lady for Illya to squire about. Feeling only a bit put upon, Illya put down his plate and went to join his friend.
The rest of the night was a blur of names and faces, as they danced and drank and ate. By the time he and Napoleon began the climb to their room, Illya could hardly put one foot in front of the other. When Napoleon threw his arm over his shoulder, his face alight with a somewhat befuddled smile, Illya could only smile in return. Not sure who was helping whom, they made their way up the stairs.
Illya walked slowly along the hallway, studying one picture then moving on to the next. Through them he watched Napoleon grow from a small boy, his smile already enchanting, to youth, where he seemed to never have passed through an awkward stage, to the man he now was. With him was his family, joined by the bonds of blood yet separated by temperament.
Some were, anyway. Napoleon appeared to get along well with his mother. When she'd asked him earlier to accompany her to the store, he'd gone willingly. Given the free time, Illya had finally been able to satisfy his curiosity about his friend and his family by perusing the photos that lined the upstairs hallway.
He'd began at the beginning, examining the old, turn-of-the-century photos of men and women long dead that gave way to more modern color offerings of the family as it was now, studying each picture by turn. He'd been especially fascinated by the photo of Napoleon with the woman he imagined was his friend's late wife. She wasn't anything like he'd pictured her. Perhaps he'd based his assumptions too much on the type of woman Napoleon seemed to favor now: sophisticated, blonde, petite yet voluptuous. This woman, standing in his arms out on the front porch, was almost as tall as Napoleon. She was attractive, but not beautiful, and her long dark hair was tied back in a loose ponytail. She looked familiar and it took only a second to catch the deep resemblance she had to Sarah, both dark-haired, attractive and intelligent looking women. Illya supposed it was logical that brothers might prefer the same type of woman.
The next was a portrait of Napoleon in uniform. He looked...somber.
Illya followed the collage to its end. There were very few of Napoleon after that. Those there were had not been taken here. One Illya recognized as one he had taken of his friend while they were on vacation in Rome. They had been partners for less than a year, yet their friendship had already grown strong.
He moved on to take the stairs leading up to Napoleon's room. Once there, he started on the wall to the right of the door, again moving slowly in order to miss nothing. He approached the small roll desk nestled in the corner. Already open, its cubby holes were cluttered with various items, ranging from pencils to a small toy gun loaded with a roll of faded red paper with evenly spaced black dots on it. Illya sniffed it, wrinkling his nose at the smell of phosphorus. He put it back and picked up a stack of baseball cards, flipping through them before returning them to their original position.
On the next wall was a large bookcase. Of a thick, dark oak, it looked to weigh a ton. Only three of its six shelves were filled with books. The rest held a variety of mementos, including several trophies and a couple of model cars. On the second shelf down, he was surprised to see a music box. Atop its round, mirrored surface a man held a woman lightly in his arms.
He picked it up and turned the winding key a few times, then placed it back on the shelf. He watched, fascinated, as the two figures twirled gracefully about, dancing to the music. Slowly, it ran down until the last note died away. He picked it up again, taken by the object's beauty.
"I'm surprised that's still here."
Illya turned at the sound of the voice. Victoria stood at the doorway, leaning against the frame.
"Why would it not be?" Illya asked as he returned the figurine to its place.
She straightened and walked into the room to stand at Illya's side. "Because Denise, his wife, gave it to Napoleon."
Illya couldn't quite mask his surprise. "It's an odd piece of music for such an item...I mean, as a gift to one's husband."
"Yes, isn't it? I've always wondered why she chose it. The opera is a farce and doesn't give a very nice view of marriage."
"I didn't even know Napoleon liked Mozart."
"How can anyone not like Mozart?" she asked quite seriously. "Granted, The Marriage of Figaro isn't one of my favorites, but the overture is pleasant enough."
"Perhaps it was a favorite of hers."
""I suppose. Still, theirs was a strange relationship from the very beginning."
Illya had to bite his tongue in order to keep from asking what she meant. He wanted to know more about his friend, but he felt that Napoleon would not be pleased to find him pumping Victoria for the answers. He heard her laugh; turning, he saw a mocking look on her face.
"You're an odd one, aren't you? Anyone else wouldn't have wasted a second asking what I meant, especially since I can see that you're dying to know." She tilted her head and watched him speculatively. "I'm not sure if Napoleon has found himself the best friend in the world or the strangest. In any event," she nodded toward the door. "Lunch is about to be served. Time to toast the grand couple."
Illya followed her downstairs and into the formal dining room.
The room was airy and bright, though somewhat dominated by the large table in its center. Two men Illya had never seen before, he assumed the caterers, stood at attention next to the door leading to the kitchen. Napoleon's parents had already taken their seats at one end, Mr. Solo at the head, his wife on his right. They were talking quietly to each other but both nodded in acknowledgment before returning to their conversation.
Napoleon was sitting in the middle chair on the left side, so Illya walked over and took the seat at the end next to his friend. Victoria took the one on Napoleon's other side, next to her father.
"And what have you been up to?" Napoleon quietly asked.
"I've been ferreting out your family secrets. Do you mind?" Napoleon gave a weak smile before responding. "No, not at all. Ferret away."
Illya wondered at Napoleon's response but was distracted from it when Alex and Sarah walked in. Alex gave Napoleon a sour look as he took the chair across from him, leaving Sarah in the last seat, across from Illya.
With everyone finally present, Mr. Solo gave the go ahead to the caterers. They quickly withdrew, only to return with serving after serving, until the table groaned under the bounty.
Picking up his glass, Napoleon's father stood and waited until he had everyone's attention. "I'd like to propose a toast." He turned toward his wife. "To fifty years with the best wife a man could ever ask for. I love you, honey, as much today as the day we met."
There was the clink of glasses all around and murmurs of congratulations.
"Okay, enough of that; I think we did plenty of toasting last night, don't you?" He settled back in his chair and looked around at everyone. "All right, everyone, dig in."
Napoleon opened up the server in front of him. "Eggplant parmigiana, you shouldn't have, Mother."
Mrs. Solo smiled back at her son. "Well, you're hardly ever here. I thought maybe this would be one way to entice you back again soon."
"That's right," Alex interjected, "we have to make sure Leon doesn't stay away too long. You never know when he might trip and break his neck on one of his tours."
"Don't say that!" Mrs. Solo had almost shouted the words, bringing a hush to the table. "You should never say things like that. It's not nice." she finally added.
Alex practically sneered. "Oh, Mother, really. Leon's a big boy now...well, he's an adult, anyway. I'm sure he can fend off a roomful of tourists. Besides, he knows I'm just kidding, don't you, Leon?"
Napoleon didn't even respond, turning his gaze on his mother instead. "I'll try to get back more often, I promise."
Conversation was strained after that, but as the meal progressed Napoleon was somehow able to get his parents and his sister talking again, though Illya wondered how they all managed to keep their stories straight. His parents, being aware of what Napoleon really did for a living, were, he thought, a little in awe of their youngest son. Victoria spoke sardonically of everything and everyone. Thinking her little brother to be a mere travel agent certainly gave her grist for that particular mill, yet Illya could tell it was not said with malice.
It was Alex Illya worried about. He hadn't said another word but his gaze rarely strayed from Napoleon. It was as if he was just waiting for the right moment to say something.
"How are you liking your stay with us, Illya?" Mrs. Solo asked.
Illya cleared his throat. He'd only been listening with half an ear so was unprepared for the question. He had just started to open his mouth when Alex jumped in.
"Illya's probably gotten more than he bargained for. Poor guy not only has to put up with Leon at work, now he's stuck with him while on vacation."
"I have enjoyed myself immeasurably," Illya responded, pointedly ignoring Alex's remark. "You have all been very kind in welcoming me into your home."
"We've always opened our home to friends, haven't we, Mother?" Alex continued, not aware of, or unconcerned with, Illya's snub. "Why, Leon in particular is an old hand at making people welcome here. Man or woman, doesn't matter. He treats them all the same. Isn't that right, little brother?"
Napoleon carefully put his fork down and pushed his plate away. It was all done very casually, yet Illya could see the tension radiating off his friend.
"I try to be a good host, if that's what you mean."
"A good host?" Alex laughed, a harsh, bitter laugh, full of anger. "Is that what it's called nowadays? I'll give you one thing, you certainly know how to entertain." He directed his next remark at Illya. "You think you've enjoyed yourself so far? Stick around, I'm sure Leon will make sure you have the time of your life. Hell, you're already sharing—"
"Shut up, Alex."
Illya turned to Napoleon in surprise. He couldn't remember the last time he'd heard that particular tone in his partner's voice. When he had, it had never boded well for whoever he was dealing with. Illya had rarely seen Napoleon angry; he had never seen him like this.
"Oh, come on. Surely your friend would want to know what he's getting himself into. It is that way, isn't it, Leon? I seem to remember it being that way before. Of course, you're rather flexible, aren't you?"
"Alex, I'm sure Illya would prefer not to hear about your disagreement with your brother." Napoleon's mother had been tensely following the conversation, her gaze swinging from one son to the other. She seemed to be the only member of the family at all concerned with what was happening. "Besides, this isn't the time or place for this type of discussion."
"Why not? Considering Leon's track record, it's almost inevitable that—"
Suddenly Napoleon was on his feet. "That's enough." He looked down for a moment, shaking his head. "You're never going to let it go, are you? It never mattered to you what I said or what I did, it was always wrong and I'm tired of arguing with you. Things didn't work out the way you wanted them to. Well, welcome to the real world, Alex. You want to know something? They didn't work out exactly how I wanted them to, either. Now," he threw his napkin down on the table. "If you would all excuse me."
Illya watched his partner stride out of the room. He took a deep breath and then stood. "I think I'd better go after him."
"I wouldn't if I were you," Alex responded. "He won't appreciate it, take it from me."
"Take it from you? I think I know your brother far better than you do, Alex. Actually, I don't think you know him at all." He turned to the other guests. "I'm sorry, but I really do think I should see how he's doing." He took his leave, hoping that what he had said was true, that Napoleon wouldn't mind being followed. That all the hints and innuendoes dropped in the last two days would finally make some sort of sense.
He found his friend standing on the beach, his gaze locked on the wide expanse of ocean. He slowly walked up behind him. Napoleon didn't turn and Illya stopped while still several feet away.
"Napoleon, are you all right?"
"Sure, why wouldn't I be?"
"You don't usually make a habit of running from a room. I don't think I've ever seen you run from anything."
Napoleon chuckled softly. "You'd be surprised, tovarisch, how often I did just that when I lived here."
"Yeah, Alex....among other reasons, but mostly Alex. I don't know why I keep expecting things to be different between us. It never is."
Illya stepped closer until he was at Napoleon's side. That's when he noticed that Napoleon had something in his hand. "What did you find?"
"It's only a shell."
"May I see it?" Napoleon handed him the shell and Illya closely inspected it, slowly turning it over to follow its intricate patterns. "It's left-handed."
"Yes," Illya motioned Napoleon closer, "see how the shell growth spirals left? Usually, it spirals to the right. Very rarely are they as this one."
"And of course you know the exactly the type of shell it is."
"Of course. It's a strombus gigas, more commonly known as a Queen conch." His hand lightly traced the shell's delicate edges. "It has long been considered a symbol of good luck by sailors."
"Well, I guess we can all use some of that."
Illya tilted his head to study his partner's face. He couldn't tell if Napoleon was angry or sad or somewhere between the two. Whatever was bothering him, Illya felt Napoleon had finally come to the end of his rope. "That's not the only thing it's known for, you know."
"No." He gently placed the conch in Napoleon's hands. "See how beautiful it is, how fragile looking? It's not. It's actually quite strong, so strong that no matter how it's tossed and uprooted by the sea, it always manages to find its way back to the sea grass shallows from whence it came. Because of that, it's become a symbol of strength and endurance, not just against the sea but against all the storms of life."
"Maybe, but it seems this fellow's luck finally ran out."
"Yes, but he may have had a long and fulfilling life. He was certainly an older specimen, look how large his home was."
A smile touched Napoleon's face, and then was gone. "I have something I have to tell you," he said, yet he kept his eyes on the conch.
"It has to do with Alex, indirectly, anyway. Why he's always disliked me so much." Napoleon quieted for a moment. "No, that's not right. I think he disliked me from the moment he first laid eyes on me. And after all these years, I still don't understand why."
"Perhaps he saw you as a threat. I haven't been around your family very much, but you do seem to be the favorite, Napoleon. With your mother and certainly with your Aunt Amy."
"I guess I've always known that but it wasn't something I asked for, or even worked at." He finally looked up but only to direct his gaze back out over the ocean. "I tried for so many years to make him like me, but whatever I did only seem to make it worse. And then I did something that made sure he'd hate me for the rest of his life. I only hope it doesn't make you feel the same way."
"I can't imagine you could—"
"I stole his fiancée from him, Illya. I stole her away and married her myself."
Illya's eyes went wide. That was certainly the last thing he'd thought he would hear. He frowned. "But Alex is several years older than you are."
"Twelve, to be exact. Denise was only eight years older than me. And when you're nineteen and fresh from a war and a twenty-seven year old woman is there, helping you cope with the memories and the grief.... It was easy to forget about Alex...and all the other things that made the relationship impossible from the very beginning."
"Where was Alex?"
"In Europe, working on opening up a bank branch over there. I forget where, exactly. Germany, maybe. But he was gone for over two months. By the time he got back, we were already married."
Illya mulled over the information. "I suppose I can see why you wouldn't be his favorite person. But it's not as if you forced her to marry you, Napoleon. I do not mean to speak ill of the dead, but she couldn't have loved your brother very much to begin with if she could so easily leave him for you. Not that I blame her. Given the choice of the two of you, why would anyone not chose you? What I don't understand is why you think it would make me hate you."
"Because that's not the entire story." He brought a hand up and rubbed his temples. "God, this is hard."
"You don't have to tell me if it's too difficult."
Napoleon continued talking, as if he hadn't heard Illya. "When I married Denise I was sure I was in love with her. But after all these years I'm not quite so sure anymore. Because when I married her I was grieving for someone else, someone I did love very, very much."
"Did Denise know this?"
"Not at first. She knew the person had died but she thought the two of us had only been friends, very good friends, but only friends nevertheless. And we were happy, at first. Denise did save my sanity, I think."
"But something happened." Of course, something had happened. Denise had died. "I'm sorry, Napoleon, I know you weren't married very long before—"
"Before she died? No, we weren't. But it was long enough for Denise to have already left me."
"She left you?"
"Not literally. I wish she had. It would have been easier on both of us. I had returned to college so Denise was staying with my parents. I came home one weekend and it was like talking to a stranger. You see, she'd found out about, well, about the person I'd been in love with." Napoleon began fidgeting with the conch, turning it over in his hand, as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. "We did try to work it out but I don't think she could ever get that image out of her head."
"What image?" When Napoleon didn't respond, Illya grabbed him by the arm. "What image, Napoleon?"
Napoleon finally looked at him then. "The image that Alex described to her, of finding me and..." He pressed his lips together, as if fighting to keep the words in.
Illya gently squeezed Napoleon's arm, hoping to coax an answer from him. "You and who?"
Pulling his arm from Illya's grasp, Napoleon stepped away. At first Illya thought he was going to run again. Perhaps it even crossed his friend's mind but then he stopped and turned to Illya once more.
"Me and Kevin."
Yes. Nothing else made any sense, and Illya realized that he had known all along, or at the very least suspected. It was like the last piece of a puzzle falling into place. The picture had always been there; one just needed to fit it all together. He took a deep breath, releasing it in a long drawn out sigh.
"Sam Wycliffe's son."
Napoleon frowned but then his brow cleared in understanding. "You spoke to Sam at the party."
"Yes, he told me how close you and his son were. I suppose I should have guessed right then and there but it's not a...a situation I've ever envisioned you in."
"No, I imagine not. And I'm sorry, Illya."
"Sorry? Sorry for what?"
"For dragging you into this mess. I knew there was a chance this would all come out but I couldn't bring myself to turn down your offer. I think deep down I may have even hoped it would, that it would give me a chance to tell you some things I've wanted to tell you for a long time. I only hope this doesn't bother you too much and that we can continue to be friends."
"It doesn't bother me."
"That's nice to hear," Napoleon responded, somewhat skeptically. "But I know this has got to be something of a shock, and I'm sure it's going to take time for you to get used to—"
"Napoleon, I assure you, it doesn't bother me." He walked up until he was standing right in front of his partner. "And it doesn't bother me because I've also had some experience with men."
Napoleon looked like he had been struck with a two by four. "You have? You have? Why the hell didn't you ever tell me?"
"Why? You certainly haven't been forthcoming about your inclinations, have you? Why do you think it would have been any easier for me, especially—" Illya snapped his mouth shut.
But there was no way Napoleon wouldn't have caught that. "Especially? Especially what? What else were you going to say, Illya?"
Illya turned away, looking out into the sea rather than have to look at his friend's face. "Nothing."
The next thing he knew, Napoleon was at his side, placing a hand on each side of Illya's face and gently pulling him around, forcing him to look at him. "Would it help if I told you I'm in love with you?"
Illya carefully studied his friend's countenance, looking for the truth there. A grin slowly spread over his face as he found what he was seeking. He quickly turned his head around to scan the house. "This is most annoying."
He turned to gaze upon Napoleon again. "I'd like to kiss you right now, but I'm afraid of who might see. We could do with a little privacy."
Napoleon grabbed his hand. "Come on, I know just the place."
With the conch still firmly in his other hand, he led Illya down the beach, their steps taking them further from the house. Eventually, they left the shore and made their way into a forest of paradise trees, Jamaica dogwoods and queen palms that grew profusely on the property and effectively screened them from any prying eyes.
After only a few minutes the forest opened up. In the clearing, a small corrugated tin shack sat at one end of a spacious wooden deck. Benches of the same wood created a conversation area in front of the structure, while palms growing up through the deck's surface shaded the tiny house.
Half of the shack was open to the elements, with windows on two sides slung open over small counter tops that stuck out beneath them and by the rickety doors at the back that swayed partially open.
"It used to be some sort of fruit or drink stand. At least, that's what we figure it was. It was here when my parents bought the property. They added the deck and it became our dressing shack. The back half is pretty well insulated." Napoleon turned and winked at him. "And it has a bed."
He led Illya up the steps and onto the deck, then around to the doors of the shed. They entered and Napoleon pulled the doors closed behind them. "I know it won't keep anyone out, but it feels safer this way." After gently placing the conch on the closest counter top, he turned and led Illya through the door into the back room.
Illya looked around, pleasantly surprised by what he saw. In this part of the shack the windows had been screened over and a small rug covered the rough flooring. One wall was covered with hooks, some of which had large, brightly colored towels hung on them. And as Napoleon had promised, I bed sat against the back wall. It wasn't very large, but certainly big enough for their needs.
He felt Napoleon's arms come around him and he leaned back into the embrace.
"I've thought about being with you for such a very long time. It's hard to believe it's finally going to happen."
Illya smiled. He, too, was finding it hard to believe. His love for Napoleon had begun almost from the day of their first meeting; time had only strengthened it.
When he felt Napoleon begin to unbutton his shirt, it was the simplest thing to allow it, and then to turn and do the same. Once their shirts were off, Napoleon pulled him back into his arms and took Illya's mouth in a searing kiss.
He welcomed the invasion, Napoleon's tongue exploring Illya's mouth the same way his hands explored his body. He could feel each caress down to his soul as Napoleon explored every curve and plane, his fingers warm against his flesh. Finally, as if satisfied he'd learned all there was to learn, he undid Illya's belt and fly and his hands dipped inside, shoving Illya's pants down around his hips as he took his ass in his hands to bring their bodies closer.
Illya hissed as the cloth of Napoleon's trousers pressed against him. But he wanted the feel of flesh against his own and no longer willing to take a passive role, he worked at their clothes until both stood bare. Then he pulled Napoleon into his arms and took his turn exploring his friend's body.
He felt Napoleon awkwardly pull him toward the bed and then they had tumbled onto its surface. He felt the rough linen against his back and his partner's naked body covering his, Napoleon's cock hard and hot against his own. He spread his legs then wrapped them around Napoleon's hips and began an urgent thrusting.
He heard Napoleon moan, a sound he'd only imagined until now in the secret world of his dreams and then his partner pushed his hands under Illya's body and pulled him hard against him and took up the movement of their coupling.
It didn't take long. He had waited years for this, too many years for his body not to be quickly overloaded by the sight and smell of his partner in his arms. When Napoleon stiffened and Illya felt a rush of hot liquid bathe his groin, he could do nothing but follow his partner into orgasm. His eyes slammed shut and he cried out his completion.
They lay panting, their bodies still locked together. Finally, Napoleon slowly pulled away. He got up and grabbed a towel from one of the hooks to wipe them both clean before crawling back onto the bed and taking Illya into his arms.
He relaxed into Napoleon's embrace, the soft breeze blowing in through the open window drying the perspiration from their bodies. There were still a few hours of sunlight left, but the air had cooled some from the heat of midday. He shivered and turned to reach for the blanket that had fallen to the floor.
"Are you cold?"
Illya tucked the blanket around them before snuggling back against Napoleon's side. "Only a little, but I'd prefer there be something between us and anyone who might take it into their minds to come looking for us."
"Not even Alex?"
Napoleon gave him a puzzled look. "Why would you think Alex would come looking for us?"
"You mentioned something about him seeing you and Kevin."
"Ah, that. No, it wasn't out here. No one was supposed to be home and we were up in my bedroom. And we had gotten careless. We'd been together for over a year already when Alex caught us."
"How old were you?"
"When he caught us? Seventeen." Napoleon's eyes grew troubled. "He didn't say a word, just looked at us as if we were something that had crawled out of the sewers. Then he smiled. Isn't that odd? After that he pretty much left me alone. It was as if in his mind I wasn't a threat anymore. It didn't matter that no one else knew; he did."
"So, he never told anyone until Denise."
"Not as far as I know. I don't think she told anyone else, either. I think she was too ashamed, afraid of what people would say."
"I can well imagine. It's not something most people are very understanding of. That it was her husband she was finding this out about, it couldn't have been easy for her."
Napoleon snorted. "That's an understatement if I ever heard one. Not only was she stuck with me, but she had Alex around as a constant reminder of what she'd given up. I've often wondered why she didn't just leave me and go back to him. But she never did, no matter how bad it got she stayed until...."
"Until she died."
"Yes, until she died. I left right after that. Alex had made it his mission in life to make sure I paid for what I'd done. He couldn't forget Denise and he was going to make damn sure I didn't, either. As if I could."
"And then he marries someone who could pass for Denise's sister."
"You caught that, too, did you? But I think he loves Sarah. At least, I hope he does. Anyway, I finished college and then joined UNCLE almost immediately. I couldn't stand the thought of coming back here." Napoleon shook his head, as if to dislodge the unpleasant memories. "And here we are now."
Illya smiled. "Yes, here we are now. But perhaps we should be returning to the house. This is a lovely little place, but I don't think it's conducive to a good night's sleep."
"We will." Napoleon came up on one elbow then slowly began lowering his mouth towards Illya's. "But not just yet."
They left the small hut as they'd found it except for one additional item, the conch sitting on the counter as if it had always been there. Their way was lit by the sliver of moon that hung high in the sky as they walked along the beach and then up to the deck at the back of the house. The door was unlocked, so they quietly entered and made for their room.
Just as they got to the bottom of the stairs, Napoleon's mother appeared, wishing to speak to her son. With a glance at Illya, Napoleon followed her into the den, the doors closing behind them. Illya took the stairs up to their room and after showering set about waiting for his partner's return. But the next thing he knew it was early morning. He turned to see Napoleon sleeping at his side.
They left soon after; they had a long drive ahead of them and then the flight to New York to look forward to. It would feel good to be home. And it didn't matter whose apartment they ended up in, from now on Illya would think of both places as his home. Napoleon's, too.
The house was silent; no one else was up at this hour. Napoleon stated that he had said his goodbyes the night before. Quietly, they brought their luggage down and locked the door behind them. Illya turned to watch the house fall away as Napoleon drove through the quiet neighborhood.
"Are you sure your mother won't mind us sneaking away like this?"
"I'm sure. We had a long talk last night. I would have woken you when I came up, but it was pretty late." He turned and winked at Illya. "You looked like you could use the rest."
Illya felt his face heat. He wondered how long it would be before he got used to their changed relationship. Never, he hoped. He liked this new feeling.
"Besides, it's better this way, for everyone."
"She didn't ask about why you left the table?"
"She didn't have to. It turned out, she already knew. About everything. Me and Denise. Me and Kevin. She'd worked it out years ago."
"She knew and never said anything?"
"She said at one point she thought about saying something. It was right after my twentieth birthday. Denise bought me a music box, of all things."
"I saw it. It plays a...unique piece."
"Yeah, the message was a little hard to miss. She knew our marriage was a farce. She died soon after that. My mother didn't see any point in saying anything to anyone after that. The only reason she brought it up last night was because of what happened with Alex. She said she's tired of this problem between us and she wants it resolved. I'm not sure it's possible but I'm willing to give it a try."
"The question is, is Alex willing to, isn't it? After all, he's the one who's kept it going all these years."
"She's going to talk to him, too. She sees how it's eaten away at him and how it's affecting his marriage. Hopefully, she'll be able to make him see that he's hurting himself more than he's hurting me."
"I hope so. Sarah deserves better."
"I agree. My mother thinks so, too. She said it wasn't just about me and Alex anymore. That we had to consider how it might affect Sarah and you."
"She figured that out, too. She's not totally for it, though she did say she thought you and I were more in tune with each other than Denise and I ever were. But as long as we're discreet, she said we're both more than welcome to come to visit anytime we want."
"I have a feeling that's going to be the way of it for us most of the time."
Napoleon glanced over, worry in his eyes. "Is that going to be a problem for you?"
"No, it's not as if that hasn't been the way I've always had to live my life. As long as it's not a problem for you, it won't be for me, either."
"To tell you the truth, it doesn't matter to me what anyone else thinks. Maybe with everyone else I'll still have to live a lie; hell, that's describes our jobs pretty well, doesn't it? But at least with the most important person in my life I can now be who I really am. I don't have to hide anymore." Napoleon smiled. "It feels good."
Seeing the happiness in Napoleon's eyes, and knowing it was a feeling he more than shared, Illya could only agree.
To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters.
We know each other as we always were.
We know each other's hearts. We share private family jokes.
We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys.
We live outside the touch of time.
Clara Luz Zuniga Ortega