The Hold Me, Touch Me Affair
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognise is mine. In fact, given how difficult Napoleon was being during the writing of this, even if he was mine, I might disown him. (Very temporarily, of course ;D)
I was getting sick of this assignment by the time I made it back to the office from Communications.
'Five teams of agents! Five!' I shouted, slapping the mission folder down on my desk and making Illya jump. I got the evil eye for that, which I am certain I deserved.
'Must you shout?' he asked, looking up. 'What is it?'
'This assignment. I've put five different teams on it and he's rejected every one.'
He looked thoughtful, which relaxed me a little. So far, I had left Illya out of it; it was the CEA's task, not his, and I suspect he gets fed up enough with having to do the odd bit of my paperwork from our joint assignments, without having to help out with the departmental admin too.
'We are posing as an agency to supply him with assistants to...remind me.'
I should have known he was sure to know at least something about it. Illya seems to keep up with pretty much everything around here.
'He needs two people to work together identifying and cataloguing his latest fresh stock of weaponry.'
'And assuming his ownership of the weapons is legitimate under law, given that he is applying to outside agencies for help, why is UNCLE involved?'
'Because we suspect many of his weapons are ending up in Thrush hands. If we catalogue them, we can spot them when they turn up.'
'So why is he trusting to outside agencies?'
'Well, Mr Waverly is of the opinion that he is something of an opportunist, who found that he could, almost legitimately, get hold of large quantities of assorted weaponry. Now he finds he doesn't know enough on his own to process them effectively. He can't trust the people he's dealing with, obviously, so he looks for a third party. We managed to persuade him to register with us. Now if he rejects one more team, we lose the contract and we're back to square one.'
'And he is rejecting them because?'
I opened the file and flicked through.
'Because he's, uh, bigoted, puritanical and paranoid.'
'That's a poor combination. What bothered him?'
'He seems to take the slightest physical contact or friendly comment as evidence of a rampaging sexual relationship, or the desire for one, and he doesn't think that anything like that is remotely acceptable, full stop. He's rejected one male and female team for being, uh...' It took me a moment to find the place in the first agents' report. '.... ''Sinfully attached to each other''. After that, we sent four pairs of male agents, including one team that had never worked together before, so they had no real repartee for him to latch onto. All four were dismissed as ''Flagrantly and disgustingly homosexual''.'
Illya smiled indulgently. 'I wasn't aware we had four teams like that in Section Two.'
Normally I would have shared his amusement, but this assignment had me worried, and I just frowned at him.
'Nope. Neither was I. I'm still pretty sure we don't. Seems Mr Cartleigh considers leaning over your partner's shoulder, ah...' I had to consult the file again. 'Touching his arm to point something out, er, pointing out a loose hair on his face... Patting him on the back when he's done a good job and smiling at him when you meet him...' I flicked the last paper in the file to the left, and folded it up on the desk. 'Ah, he thinks all these things are clear indicators that the pair of you are involved in some sort of romantic liaison.'
'And all our agents fell foul of this? Did we know about him beforehand?'
'Sure we knew. They were all being careful, but it seems he watches them like a hawk and the slightest slip and, zip! you're out. He won't even shake hands with another man.'
Illya raised an eyebrow at me, then frowned. 'I'm sure there is an excellent reason, but if it was known to be such a difficult assignment, why weren't we put on it?'
I wasn't really sure. I fiddled with my pencil, wasting time. I had a rough idea, but it wasn't something I was willing to share with my partner.
'I asked. Mr Waverly just said I was to assign it to someone else. I've put in the reports, however, and I don't think he'll be able to brush me off without an explanation now. We just can't afford for it to go wrong this time, and I'd rather carry that responsibility myself.' Illya nodded and went back to his own paperwork, and I could only sit there, re-reading the reports and hoping that whatever we did this time would be the right decision.
An hour later found us outside Mr Waverly's office door, surreptitiously straightening out our suits and giving each other a final glance over before stepping inside. I tweaked Illya's lapel for good measure. It doesn't matter how much time I spend with Mr Waverly, nor how relaxed I allow myself to become in his presence; every time I'm about to step into his office, I get that 'waiting outside the principal's door' feeling...
'Ah, good afternoon gentlemen.'...And then he greets me, and if all's well, I feel pretty good all of a sudden. 'Mr Solo, I have read your report. It appears our agents do not meet our client's scrupulous standards.'
'Ah, no sir, it seems we have been found wanting.'
'And we are down to our last chance?'
'His wording was very definite.'
Mr Waverly went over to his humidor and began to fill his pipe. It was obviously more interesting than us, because he talked to it, rather than us, for the time being. 'In that case, Mr Solo, I have no choice but to give the assignment to you and Mr Kuryakin.'
I felt slightly uncomfortable, I didn't want to ask what was on my mind, I try not to question his judgement—you never come off well when you start doing that to the Old Man—but I needed to know.
'Ah, If I may ask sir, why was it not assigned to us on my initial recommendation?'
When Mr Waverly looked up, he had a strange expression on his face, part amusement, part something that looked a little like pity. He shook his head.
'I am sure you will both do your very best, but I'm afraid I don't really see much chance of your succeeding if all the others have failed. Still, I wish you luck.' Then he went back to his pipe, clearly dismissing us. Against my better judgement, I opened my mouth to question him further, but Illya tapped my arm and shook his head. He knew as well as I did that it would not help.
We returned to our office in silence, I was busy mulling over what Mr Waverly had said. I don't really see much chance of your succeeding if all the others have failed. The way he had said that. It had sounded as if he thought Illya and I stood less chance than anyone else. Well, I trust him, but I don't understand him, this time.
Once we were safely back in our office, I tossed the briefing file across the desk to Illya.
'Well, we got it. Now's your chance to catch up on anything you slept through in the last three hundred ordnance briefings.'
Illya shot me a nasty look, 'Speak for yourself.'
I grinned, I knew I'd get him wound up with that one. 'I was. I know you're never anything less than attentive. That's why you were sketchy about the full case history of this assignment, even though I've been telling you about it for weeks.' Illya shifted in his chair, dragging the file over to him, I think it was a guilty shuffle, but I wouldn't risk suggesting it. Anyway, he rallied quickly.
'Napoleon, when you become bored with your own paperwork, which seems to be an almost constant condition, you have a habit of chattering away about utterly insignificant things while I am trying to work. I long ago learned to block you out. If I could not, neither my own, nor the half of your work that I do for you, would ever be completed. I cannot help it if you choose, entirely out of the blue, to impart important case notes to me during such ramblings.'
I tried to look hurt, but I know it was a failure. He knows me too well, and I certainly do have a habit of talking to him when I know he's not listening, just because I know he'll put up with it and it saves me alarming the girls who wander in and out by having them find me talking to the walls.
'Well, even if you already know your stuff, that's a hefty read, and we have to know it all. Judging from what the other teams have reported, he's got everything and its kid brother there, and Mr Cartleigh expects us to fill in a whole sheet-full of information on each one.'
'You know it all?' Illya looked disbelievingly at me and I felt just a little smugness creep into my voice. I knew I'd be found out easily enough, though, so I told the truth.
'Only by luck because I read up when the assignment came in, when I was planning who to assign, and I was planning on it being us.' He nodded and started to read, blocking me out completely.
Cartleigh's store-room was in the basement of a large, stately property in the middle of nowhere. Illya chose to drive while I navigated and as we drove, we went over our plans for the last time.
'The transmitters in our ties must be switched on before we encounter Mr Cartleigh each day,' Illya recited, drumming his fingers on the wheel in a way he knows drives me crazy.
'No touches, no reaching across each other, no leaning over shoulders, no brushing dust off our suits, no shaking hands, no patting on the back, no conversation other than 'oegood morning' and the pure basics required to get the job done—military-style.' I shot back.
'No shaking hands, his or anyone else's.'
'No eye contact.'
'No glancing at each other.'
'No questioning him or even mentioning his bigoted ideas. No getting angry with him.'
'No whispering to each other.'
Illya looked across at me, confused. I explained. 'The last team said they were so careful when he was around, and all the time they were in the stores, there's nothing he could possibly have taken offence at. He's almost certainly got bugs in all the rooms, and monitors them pretty closely.'
Illya tutted loudly, 'What's the matter with the man?'
'I think we've already established that.' I replied. Illya looked grim as he swung the car around in front of the entrance to the house and parked. We got out, carefully picking up our luggage without helping each other, and heading to the door a safe distance apart.
I rang the bell and we waited. Eventually the door was opened by a prim looking woman who appeared to be in her sixties. She looked us over critically. 'You have been sent by the agency?'
I nodded. 'Yes ma'am. Uh, Edward Lawson, and my associate, Grant Lester. I believe Mr Cartleigh is expecting us.'
'Indeed,' she replied, her expression suggesting that she was still not sure about us. 'You had better come inside. Mr Cartleigh is engaged at present, I will show you to your rooms, then inform him of your arrival. I trust you have been given full particulars of Mr Cartleigh's expectations?'
I nodded again, trying hard not to let show how much I disapproved of Mr Cartleigh's expectations. She nodded shrewdly and gestured for us to follow her up the stairs. I was about to glance around to check that Illya was next to me, when I realised what I was doing, and resisted the instinctive act, making a mental note to keep an eye on things like that. It wouldn't do to blow the mission for something so basic.
We were shown to two rooms, separated by a third, empty bedroom, and I resigned myself to spending my evenings alone. Having dumped our cases in the rooms, the housekeeper led us back down to the entrance hall, where she left us. We chose separate chairs, a good distance from each other, and sat staring at our own feet. When she returned, we followed her to a large pair of heavy, wooden doors, and she knocked, pushed the door and pointed us inside.
Mr Cartleigh looked like a businessman. The file we had on him pinned his age at fifty-seven. I would have guessed older. Perhaps his puritanical lifestyle wasn't actually all that good for the health; well, I'd go along with that: saintliness is all well and good, but there's nothing like an evening with a warm body in your arms to perk up your mood, and as the psychs are always telling us, a healthy mind aids a healthy body.
'Good morning gentlemen,' he greeted us sternly. 'I trust you have been fully briefed on what is required of you.'
'Yes sir, we have,' I replied. He looked at me piercingly from behind his wide, leather-topped desk.
'The previous men sent by your agency have all turned out to be most unsuitable. I will not give another chance. I have been most generous in my loyalty to your agency, but my patience is now at an end. See to it that I find no cause to dismiss you.'
'Yes sir,' said Illya. I could hear the ice in his voice, but I doubted very much that it would be obvious to Mr Cartleigh. So much for No getting angry with him. I wasn't sure why Illya was so annoyed. We had no reason to fear, after all, there was nothing about our relationship that would actually give Mr Cartleigh sleepless nights. So long as we remembered that he was looking for the tiniest thing, we would be fine. It was probably Illya's background. I assumed that the idea that someone was that interested in his private affairs for all the wrong reasons was probably just a little too close to how things had been when he was younger.
Cartleigh got to his feet and took a noticeably wide tour around us to get to the door. He nodded to us, 'You will follow me, I will show you how things are arranged here and what you are expected to do. You will listen attentively, I do not wish to spend my time repeating myself. I have already had to do this five times. I hope this will be the last.' He walked on without waiting for a reply. We hurried after him, I again found myself checking the impulse to look back for Illya. I shook myself and kept moving.
We followed him through a series of locked doors and down a staircase into a far more industrial-looking part of the building. Racks upon racks of storage lined the walls of a vast basement. Running down the centre of the room was a long bench with papers stacked at intervals upon it. Cartleigh ushered us towards it and stood on the far side. He gestured at the racks.
'Now, gentlemen. You will find that each rack bears a number. On the desk you will find a corresponding pile of papers. A second number refers to the individual piece. In each case, there is a form to be filled in. You each have one in front of you. Do you understand all the questions printed on it?' We checked over the forms, they were pretty straightforward, and nodded. 'Good. Each form must be filled out in its entirety. The manner in which this is to be done is as follows. One of you will go to the racks, collect the next piece in the sequence. That man will bring it to this bench where he will keep hold of it, turning it as necessary so that the other man may take the appropriate measurements and make the relevant observations. The piece will at no time be placed upon the bench, nor will it be dropped below waist height. Once the form is completed, the same man will return the piece to the racks and collect the next. At the end of each rack, you will swap places in order to relieve the strain. If you wish to stop for a comfort break, you will place the current piece back on the racks and you will both approach the doors through which you entered, your hands held in front of you, and someone will come to let you out. This is how it will be. Do you understand?' We nodded again. 'Your luncheon will be provided upstairs. You will be collected when it is time. You may start now. I will remain here for the time being, until I am satisfied of your capabilities.'
Illya spoke up,
'I will begin by holding the pieces.' He went to the racks. I wondered why he had chosen that job so firmly, but it soon became apparent that he had gauged the situation and worked it to his advantage. With the position from which Cartleigh was observing us, Illya would have his back to him ninety percent of the time. Given the fury still lurking in Illya's eyes, I thought that this was probably for the best.
Illya brought across the first piece and held it for me to record. It was simple enough, a rifle with which I was fairly familiar. I jotted down the appropriate information, measuring with care, so that my hands did not brush against Illya's.
Eventually I nodded, 'Done. Next.' Illya took it away and returned with the next piece.
It was slow work, and we carried on like that for the remainder of the morning. Cartleigh stayed, eyes fixed unceasingly on us and what we were doing. At one o'clock, the housekeeper returned and announced that lunch was ready. Cartleigh watched as Illya returned the last piece to the rack and returned, his hands held insolently high, at least, so I felt. Cartleigh, however, did not seem to notice, but escorted us up to a small room set up with a table and chairs, the table bearing a limited assortment of cold cuts, bread and sauces. He paused at the door.
'I dine alone at luncheon. You may take half an hour, then you will be collected. I may not rejoin you this afternoon, your work appears to be satisfactory. However, please bear in mind that you are being watched, if you have any ideas of removing any of the pieces for your own use, or of anything else, please remember that you will be seen.' He nodded politely to us and closed the door. I went to the table and was surprised to find that I had beaten Illya to it. I selected some of the meats and bread, drenched them liberally in a number of the sauces, which got me another disapproving look '" Illya doesn't believe in sauces in sandwiches—and took the plate back to a chair to eat. Then I realised why Illya had held back. He was standing by the table, repeatedly filling his plate and eating while standing there, making the next refill that much less bothersome. Hungry work, I thought. Well, there was nothing to stop us talking, so long as we watched our words carefully.
'Well, this isn't too difficult,' I said, careful to word it to mean the work for Mr Cartleigh's benefit, and the watching our step for Illya's.
'No. Quite straightforward. I cannot foresee any problems.' Illya returned his attention to his food, and I had to leave it there. Perhaps he was right, perhaps it would be better not to talk too much.
I sat back in my chair and tried very hard not to watch Illya eat, in case it was construed as gazing at him. It was actually quite difficult not to watch him. I always watch Illya eat. It makes me happy. Something about the look on Illya's face when he's eating... I tore my eyes away and stared vigourously at my own hands. Yes, okay. There were a couple of things I was going to have to watch, but this morning hadn't been too bad, it was strange not to talk to my partner, stranger not to tap him on the arm to alert him to something, but really it was no different to being on a close-quarters stake-out where the slightest noise would give the game away.
Except that in those circumstances, we are usually stuck together, shoulder to shoulder.
The afternoon passed in much the same way as the morning, and at five we were told to go up to our rooms to freshen up before our meal. My room being the first in the corridor, I ducked in without a word, leaving Illya to go to his own room. I sat down on the bed, running a hand over my face and stretching, in an attempt to work out some of the kinks that a day bent over the bench had put into my back. If this was a normal mission I'd have been trying to sweet-talk Illya into giving me a massage at that point. The thought made me smile. Now there was an action that was unlikely to go down well with Mr Cartleigh.
I went to the sink in the corner of the room and washed my hands, rubbing off the particles of grease and dust that had migrated from the collection and the paperwork. I had carried one rack of weaponry, Illya two. It was tiring, no doubt about that. The weapons were, for the most part, fairly heavy, and carrying them at chest level was awkward. Even when I was completing the forms, the concentration required to ensure we did not slip up was draining.
I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes until I was expected in the dining room. Fifteen minutes until I had to start watching my actions again. I tipped my head back to stare at the ceiling, relieving the crick in my neck. Yes, strictly speaking it wasn't difficult, but I hadn't realised just how much I touch Illya when we're working together. Now I was feeling antsy. Lack of human contact. Ah well, due to some fine arguments on the part of Personnel, we could have alternate nights out of the building after the first night, so when it was my turn, I could track down somewhere to spend the evening with a nice young lady and get in a bit of human contact. That would keep me sane, I thought. Meanwhile, we would be able to chat over dinner... probably.
...Or possibly not. I punched the pillow as my bedroom door slammed behind me. Frustration barely covered it. Every time I had attempted to start a conversation, Cartleigh had swiftly decreed the subject closed and had soon made it clear that he did not approve of idle chatter at the dinner table. Illya had also been very quiet, but then, he often is, in the company of strangers, so that was nothing to go by. I had given up, not wishing to annoy our host, but now I was ready to talk to anything. I spurned the possibility of the walls.
'Well, night-stand, it's been a helluva day. Interesting man, Mr Cartleigh, very strict of course, but then, I respect that in an employer. It's sure nice to not be under observation any more, gets a bit weird after a while, doncha think?' I pulled a book out of my bag, lay back on the bed and began to read, smiling behind the pages at the glint of the little bug hidden in the cornice of the room.
The second day followed exactly the same pattern as the first. Starting at nine, we worked until one, stopped for lunch, returned, worked until five, and were then sent back to our rooms.
I was shaking by the time I shut my door. I stood in front of the mirror and cursed myself. I can spend weeks on a mission alone, without any sort of communication with people, without having anybody to touch. Perhaps that was the problem. Here I was, bored half to tears by the work, inches away from my partner all day, but repeatedly having to hold back, to stop myself laying a hand on Illya's arm, to catch myself just as I was about to lean over Illya's shoulder, to pull back just as I was about to whisper low into Illya's ear. It was like being on a jailbait date all the time, drinking cherry soda, with daddy's shotgun breathing down your neck. Except that here, there was no cherry soda, no expectation of sneaking off to grab a sly kiss behind the barn, and very little likelihood of 'daddy' trying to marry me off with the other party concerned. He'd have a hard time getting us more closely united than we already are, anyway. You simply don't work as partners in the situations we handle without getting kinda involved with each other.
That wasn't really the issue here, though. It was more a case of how long I could go without touching anybody, when the person I'm used to touching was right there next to me, tempting me all day. I needed to let off steam, so right after another hellishly quiet dinner, I told my host that I was taking advantage of the agreed night out and received in return the most grudging acquiescence I have ever encountered. Illya had already gone, slipping out of the room the moment we were effectively excused from the table, and I hated the fact that he had gone without a glance at me.
My suit was fine for my purposes, so I headed straight from the dining room out of the front door, and drove off, whistling to myself, trying to pretend that I was fine. I can't deny that I wished Illya was next to me. Even though I was out to get a girl tonight, under different circumstances I could have taken him along. I've done it on occasion, particularly when I haven't been all that wild about my date. He moans about it, griping that he'd rather be at home, but he never refuses, though I never force him to come. I just like his company. Call that odd if you like, when we spend so much time together anyway, but I don't have to act around Illya, or not much, anyway, and that means a lot.
I arrived on the edge of town a half hour later, pulling in a discreet distance from a likely-looking bar I'd spotted on the way through yesterday. When I do this—which I don't very often, since it's potentially risky and usually unnecessary—I try to choose a place that's busy and seems to have a varied clientele. The last thing I need is to find myself the only stranger in a cliquey, small-town love-in. This place was buzzing, the doors were wide open and there were tourist types hanging around just inside, drinking nervous drinks, but not looking like they felt like they'd walked in the wrong door.
I stepped inside and headed straight toward the bar. I always figure the management deserve to draw a little blood before I take advantage of their services. There was a group of kids there, only just old enough to drink, if that. They were ahead of me, so I stuck my hands in my pockets and waited, tapping my foot to the beat from the jukebox and taking a look around.
There were plenty of groups around, plenty of couples too. A few singles, mostly round the edges, keeping to themselves at individual tables. I sized up the two girls who found themselves in this position. The first was a brunette, pretty enough, but staring into her drink in the focused sort of way that usually means the girl really is here for the drink. If I didn't want to spend an evening listening to her raging about her moronic ex-boyfriend, I suspected I'd be better off leaving that one well alone. The second was a redhead, looking around hopefully, possibly a little too hopefully. Something about her pushed my alert-buttons and I didn't catch her eye. Besides, I wanted a blonde tonight.
I'm a gregarious sort when I want to be, and I can get myself invited to join a party without too much trouble. The one I eventually settled on contained three blondes, plus a couple of brunettes. The brunettes were definitely involved with two of the guys in the group, which left only one man between the other three. It seemed a safe bet, so I took my drink over to them and asked whether they were local. Well, it's as good a conversation starter as any.
Fifteen minutes later, I was happily ensconced in their group, and a few hours after that, I was standing next to the most promising blonde, perching on her stool with practised balance. I'd danced with her a couple times and she was a bit cutesy for my taste, but she had a certain ferocity lurking beneath the surface, which showed when one of the other girls brushed something imaginary off my sleeve. I knew I was okay for this evening then, or at least, I was pretty sure; you can never be certain with girls like that. I was in the middle of a conversation with one of the guys about his business, a hardware store on the other side of town. I was playing up to my role as an agency worker, but it seemed he'd never heard of Mr Cartleigh, so my half-hearted attempt to do some recon work on my night off fell on stony ground.
The blonde started to yawn pointedly and make comments about having to get home. I took the hint and offered to walk her home, adding a careful, 'If none of your friends here object, that is.' I guess it's a pretty safe, or at least trusting, town, since her friends didn't seem to see any problem with her walking out alone with a virtual stranger. Sometimes you just want to hit these people round the head and make them think for a minute, but that's just my training. They were decent folks who believed in other decent folks, and I wasn't about to give them cause to think otherwise.
I gave her my hand to help her off the stool, and she shot one of those looks at the men that said 'this is how a gentleman behaves'. It made me grin, I can just see those three trying it out later, and there is nothing that looks so forced as a man pretending his manners come naturally. She clung to my arm and we walked out into the moonlight. It was one of those nights that are made for walking in companionable silence, something at which Illya excels. To her immense credit, this girl was not a whining chatterbox, but a natural, confident girl who seemed to be content to wait for me to start a conversation. I walked her to the end of the block before I asked where she wanted to go.
'Down by the lake? There's a walk just along this stretch that's perfect at night.' She gave me one of those trusting looks that make me glad it's me they're looking at, rather than some maniac or other. 'The lake?' I queried, making my tone amused but willing. 'You take many midnight bathing trips?'
She giggled and clung more tightly to my arm. 'No, Eddie, it's just a nice walk. My momma's at home and she doesn't like to see men at the house. I mean...' She trailed off with the sort of embarrassment that means she didn't want me to think she expected anything in particular from me, except she did.
'The lake it is then. Which way?' She pointed and we wandered down the street until the buildings thinned out and the fresh smell of a large expanse of water overtook the tar and concrete smells of the town streets.
She was right, the lake was beautiful at night, perfect in the moonlight with the reflection bouncing off to the horizon. We wandered along, arm in arm, until she stopped, turned to face me and tilted her face up, asking, 'Don't you think it's beautiful?' as a cover-story for the fact that she wanted to be kissed. I obliged, and it was around this point that I realised the nagging feeling of needing to touch and be touched still hadn't gone away. I had expected that when I took a girl's hand for the first time tonight, I would feel that intense sense of relief, after two days of enforced isolation, but I hadn't felt anything. Now I kissed the girl, she was sweet and tasted of cola and the faintest trace of alcohol. She was dainty and warm and a real delight to hold, so I slipped my arms around her and she snuggled in close, letting me run my hands over her delicate back, stroke the soft skin on her neck, feel her shiver at the promise of my palm slipping down just an inch below the small of her back. I broke the kiss and gazed into her blue eyes. She blinked slowly, that long close, and sudden flick-open that all women know, that makes you feel she's living only for you. She turned in my arms, looking out to the lake, my arms around her waist. I moved them up, palms about her thin ribs, one thumb grazing the lower curve of her breast, promising nothing. I lowered my head, breathed gentle breaths across her cheek. She smiled and tilted her head to allow me more freedom. She took hold of my hand and played with my fingers, subtly pulling it up to cover one soft breast. I let it rest there a moment, considering. I was sure I could take this girl to bed if I wanted to. She was willing, by the looks of things; probably prepared, judging by the confidence with which she flirted; and she had no reason to assume I would stick around afterwards, which suited me fine.
'I'd better walk you home now,' I said, 'Don't want your momma to worry.' I stroked her skirt-covered thigh to soften the blow, and she sighed,
'I said you were a gentleman.' She sounded like she wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved.
We strolled slowly back to her house. She was making the most of me, her hip rubbing against my leg at every step, her arm twined with mine, other hand stroking patterns on the back of my hand. I squeezed her fingers gently, released my arm and slipped it round her back, letting my fingers rest on the curve of her hip. It's not the most comfortable way to walk, but if I'm not in a hurry, it's one of my favourites.
Her house was quite a big old property on the edge of town and I left her on the porch, kissing her a soft goodnight and watching from the bottom step to check she was safely inside before heading back toward my transport.
I slipped in through the front door just about fifteen minutes after midnight. The house was silent, and for a moment I considered risking a visit to Illya's room, But professionalism won out—it was too much of a risk and I headed straight to my room instead.
The next morning I was up bright and early. The nerviness of the night before was as bad as ever. I hadn't been this jumpy since my first days in the army. I barely noticed breakfast, I was too busy doing my best not to look at Illya. I'm so used to giving him a once-over the first time I see him every day, just checking that all limbs are present and correct, looking to see if he's developed a new limp or a scummy wrist. It's just worth knowing when he's liable to start lying to me about how he is, just so that I can watch out for him a bit if I can. I suppose there was no need to check here '" after all, he'd been in his room since I last saw him, so I'm not sure what I expected to have happened to him. I had an idea that Illya was making an effort not to look at me, probably for the same reasons, but then, when he's in strange company, he often clams up and gives a helluva lot more attention to his fingernails than usual.
I followed him back down to the stores and we settled straight away, back into the same, dull routine. I sat in front of the pile of forms and looked up to start work on the first item, a shotgun—outdated, but a useful addition to the collection of anyone who might want to look inconspicuous while out in the backwoods. Illya's hands fit round the barrel and stock like they belonged there; strong fingers clenched around metal and wood. He weighed it slightly, the weapon rising and falling as if it were heaving a sigh. I caught myself before I could copy the action. I felt the pounding in my chest that meant my body was expecting something of me—the old fight-or-flight. Neither were appropriate—though the former was more likely if I were to do anything outside the rule book. I wrote furiously, my stomach churning, determinedly not looking up at his face. I could almost feel his eyes trying to find something safe to fix on. I picked up the tape and measured, my fingers within inches of his. He was hot—far hotter than the regulated temperature in the stores warranted, and I didn't dare close the gap even for a moment.
I felt like I was a contestant on one of those game-shows: Look at the prizes you could win: a shotgun, a rocket launcher, a top-level surveillance system, twenty pounds of high explosive, a cuddly Russian... No, actually, scratch that—he'd kill me. I ignored him as far as I could. I knew, absolutely knew, that it was stupid, so stupid. I just wanted to rest a hand on his arm, just feel the warmth, the solid, dependable muscle; my other, more technically-minded half.
But I couldn't. Couldn't touch. Couldn't touch, couldn't look. I'd never have said either was important to me, before that day.
Exhausting: that's the only word to describe it. I would never have expected that something so basic as avoiding eye-contact could be so hard. Usually I'm in a place to get the job done. Time is something to be beaten, not something to wish away. To get the job done before the opportunity is gone—that's the only consideration. Yet here I was, sitting on the bed in my room, wishing like hell that this was all over, because I couldn't take much more.
I knew the problem. I had not slept with the girl. I should have. I had known it almost as soon as I had left her on the porch. She would have let me, even if she was a little nervous. I had gotten myself all worked up kissing her, letting her flirt with me like that, and then I had walked away and left myself thoroughly unsatisfied. No wonder I was so twitchy. I stripped off, wondering whether our host was watching me and, if he was, how seeing me naked and uncomfortably aroused would fit with his professed puritanical ideals.
Well, I was stuck now, for the night, at any rate. It was Illya's turn to have a night out, and by all accounts, he wasn't going to take advantage of it. Damned self-contained Soviet. What's the saying? If it's not compulsory, it's forbidden? Or is it the other way around? I was still cursing him as I brought myself off, not caring whether Mr Cartleigh would approve. It was still early, and I killed the urge to doze, knowing it would only have me up early, with nothing to do but mope about. I opened my book and started to read chapter five for the sixth time.
The next night, after another wretched day of enforced false solitude, I headed out again after the evening meal, thankful that Cartleigh was not of the more old-fashioned sort who expected you to hang around drinking and putting the world to rights after dinner.
I considered heading back to the same bar, but my instinct for self-preservation rebelled at the idea of letting myself be seen in the same place too often. In theory, no-one knew we were here, but I never take anything like that for granted. I found myself heading in the general direction of the girl's house. She was a known quantity and she was, most likely, willing. Above all, she was the cause of my discomfort and, therefore, the most likely cure.
I pulled up outside, debating whether or not to go to the door. I suspected that 'Momma' might not like it, never mind that the girl had to be in her mid-twenties. I got the idea that Momma kept a very tight hand on the reins. I didn't really see any other alternative, though, and I was reaching for the door handle to get out, when, in one of those handy coincidences that most of my co-workers call (somewhat jealously) 'the Solo luck', she appeared on the porch, little bag in her hand, ready to go...where?
I pulled the handle and got out, standing behind the door so that it wouldn't look like I was advancing on her. She saw me at once and smiled, waving with her free hand. 'Eddie! How wonderful!'
I stepped out from behind the door, extending a hand to take her outstretched one as she hurried down the steps and straight towards me. I kissed her hand, aware of a slight movement at the windows of her house.
'You were on your way out?' I asked, 'Can I drop you anywhere?' She blushed neatly, dropping her eyes quite convincingly.
'Actually, I was kinda on the look-out for you,' she admitted after a moment. 'I was going to head back down to the bar, but then I saw a car pull up, and I thought it might be you. You didn't seem like the type never to speak to a girl again after an evening like that.' For some reason that made me feel horribly guilty. It was only desperation that had brought me back to her after all, but she didn't need to know that.
'Does that mean I can enjoy the pleasure of your company this evening?' I asked, already opening the passenger door for her and helping her in.
'Uh huh,' she replied, struggling to move her legs into the car in a ladylike way. I grinned and closed the door on her, wondering, as I walked back round to the driver's side, where to take her. I got in and started it up.
'I'm afraid I don't know the area very well. What would you like to do?'
'I'd like to dance,' she replied at once. I was glad, I've always enjoyed dancing with a girl before I do anything else with her. You get much more of a feel for the way you both like to go about things that way than you can with three feet of solid table between you all night, or even just sitting next to each other.
'Know any good places?' I asked. She thought for a moment.
'Harvey's? It's a hall down the other end of town. Dancing every night.' I nodded,
'Okay, Harvey's it is.'
All right, so the music was a little more geed-up than I usually want for that kind of assignation, and the demographic was about eight years too young, but it was a place to dance, and it was lively and fun and she was enthusiastic and could dance the fast numbers and the few slower ones they played for the benefit of the couples. I let her off the leash a couple of times and feared at one point that I'd lost her to a suave looking kid in a velvet tux, but she came back, laughing and reaching for my hand as I kissed the hand of the girl I'd managed to acquire during our temporary separation.
The dancing stopped at eleven and we were caught up in the crowd heading back out onto the street. The buzz of conversation faded quickly as the girls lost their adrenaline rush and started to feel the damage their fancy shoes had done to their feet, while the boys started to worry about how they could make the next move without getting their faces slapped. I grinned to myself as I held her hand and walked down the street. I hadn't had to worry about that for a good few years now.
We walked back towards the car and stopped in front of it. She slid her arms up around my neck and pulled herself up onto her toes to let me kiss her. I rested my hands on her back. It seemed fragile and small, not enough to fill my hands, not solid enough to squeeze. I needed more than this.
'I, uh, I'm afraid I can't offer you a drink at my place. I'm not in a position to invite young ladies back. I'm staying with my employer, you see.' She looked disappointed and I winced. I had hoped she'd make a quick offer of somewhere we could go instead. Now I was going to have to think fast. I started, 'But, if you...' She interrupted me.
'I can't take you home, not even for a drink '" you know, Momma... But I'm looking after my friend's house while she's away, she wouldn't mind if we got a coffee there. If you...' She trailed off, not wanting to look too forward, I suppose. I squeezed her hand.
'Okay, I'd love to. Where is this illicit coffee house?' She giggled and I helped her back into the car. We drove to a street near her house and she let us in, putting on the lights as she went ahead of me to the kitchen. I followed, feeling slightly uncomfortable at her taking the lead. I should have been the one doing the letting in and the walking ahead into the unknown dark, but after all, this wasn't really her house to use like this, and she was only acknowledging that fact.
I stopped her in the kitchen and waited to see if she'd turn for a kiss. She did, and I let my lips move softly over hers, not threatening anything, just drifting slightly off-centre, to brush across her cheek. Her head tilted to allow it and I carried on down, nuzzling at her ear until she shivered slightly and pushed me away, smiling softly, and went to boil some water.
I leant on the table and watched her, watched her hips swinging from side to side as she crossed the room in search of a couple of cups. She was just the right shape, curvy and long-legged, fair hair bouncing on her shoulders as she moved. I took the trouble to look into her eyes as she turned back to me, avoiding the trap of her breasts which pointed appealingly at me under her thin dress. I stroked a finger down her cheek and she closed her eyes.
'You look beautiful,' I said. Illya says that if he, or most other men, said that as often as I do, the women would catch on that it was a line, but I can pull it off. Every time. They always believe I'm sincere. Probably because I am. She was beautiful. She was perfectly pretty and just feisty enough and she carried herself well. And she wasn't enough. I knew it before we finished, or pretended to finish, our coffee. Before I took the hints she was throwing out and leaned in to kiss her again. Before I pulled her into my arms and felt how insubstantial her shoulders felt in my grip. Before I felt her coffee-hot lips on mine and teased them to part with my tongue, just slightly, grazing the inside of them, soft and wet and familiar.
I waited until I felt her hands pull at my tie, then I broke the kiss, pushing back just a little so that I could see her eyes and check what she really wanted. There was no question. She was willing. I reached around her again and pulled down the zipper on her dress, sliding the fabric off her shoulders, careful not to let the odd callous on my hands catch on the fabric or her skin. I try to keep them smooth for this very reason, but the job doesn't always allow for romantically soft skin.
The fabric fell to her waist and she pulled my tie away. I shrugged off my jacket, undid the top button of my shirt for her. Let her do the rest while I kissed her and stroked her arms, keeping her warm if her excitement wasn't doing that for her. Down to my undershirt, I slipped my thumbs under her bra straps, eased them away from her shoulders, ran my thumbs down to the shaped fabric covering her breasts, ran them over it, brushing her covered nipples, making her shudder and kiss me harder. I slipped my fingers inside the fabric and rolled it away, bent to kiss her breasts, soft and warm and perfect and not enough. She plucked at my undershirt, blindly trying to find a way under it, so I pulled it up over my head and threw it aside. I didn't really want to do this on the couch, but I guessed she wouldn't be happy with the idea of using her friend's bed, so I pulled a cushion across and tucked it behind her to make life easier for both of us. Then I twitched her bra undone and she took it from me and threw it away, lifting her hips so that she could reach down and slip the dress off over her feet.
She wore dainty stockings under that dress and I left them alone. They weren't in the way, and I had no intention of stretching this out too long. I was too impatient to get myself sorted out so that I could go back and work without being distracted by this terrible urge for contact all the time. She pulled at my belt and I let her undo it and fumble open the fastenings, slipping her hand inside. I sighed at the first brush of her fingers across the opening of my shorts. I was semi-erect, the sight of her nicely-arranged assets and her gentle kisses and the softness of her breasts against my cheeks had done that much for me, but I needed more and I shuffled into a better position as she slipped her hand inside and started to fondle me.
She was certainly no novice, but I got the feeling that her experience was limited and probably gained in very quick encounters when Momma wasn't looking. Her hand was making all the right moves, but far too gently for my needs. I bent my head to murmur in her ear,
'Yes, just like that, but harder.' I slipped my hand inside her panties, my middle finger slipping easily down to worry at her clitoris, already slick with moisture and throbbing slightly as I tapped it gently.
'Harder?' she gasped, uncertainly.
'Yes, I promise, harder is good.' She nodded and opened her mouth to another kiss. I felt her grip tighten and allowed myself to thrust very gently into her dainty fist. She was having problems, the opening of my shorts was chafing her wrist and she wriggled, trying to change position. I broke the kiss and stood her up, letting my pants and shorts drop to the floor, kicking off my shoes and stepping out of the clothing. She took hold of me again as I pushed my thumbs under the sides of her panties and slipped them down over her hips, taking a trail of moisture down between her legs with them. She was already starting to sag slightly against me, her breathing audible and sweetly gasping. I lowered her back down to the couch and knelt next to her, watching the flush rising from her chest up to her cheeks as I slipped a finger inside her, bending it up to catch the spot that makes them...writhe just like that. Her fist clenched around me and I rode the sensation, bending to nibble at her lips while she snapped at mine, unable to really control her movements anymore. I withdrew my finger and trailed the wetness up over her stomach, anointing her nipples with it, making her jerk under me again. I took her hand away from me and laid it flat on my stomach. She clawed at me ineffectually, but her slitted eyes still indicated welcome, so I pushed into her, feeling her tight and hot around me. She was lost almost before I started to move, and I held onto her hips, keeping them still while her back arched and her arms flailed above her head and she bit her lip in that charming way women do when they're trying not to scream. I moved inside her and felt her spasming around me. I was glad. I would have hated to leave her unsatisfied, and the extra stimulation was helping bring me along more quickly. I felt...vaguely detached. Usually by this point I was caught up in it, hammering towards completion, oh, yes, one ear open for danger as always, but otherwise lost to the experience, and here, despite the lovely girl...I just wasn't. Luckily the physical involvement and the prettiness of her flushed, satiated face before me was enough and I came, pulling out of her just before and circling myself with my hand to finish off. No point in taking unnecessary risks.
I sank down next to her and caught her up in my arms, chafing her cooling limbs and planting lazy kisses on her face. Later I smiled at her as we got dressed and she looked dreamily back at me, expecting the world; and I looked back at her fondly, promising nothing.
I slept better that night, physically sated, but in the morning, the desire to touch, to hold, was as strong as ever. I thought at first, as I lay there feeling miserable in the chaste single bed provided by Mr Cartleigh, that I'd only made things worse, the way you have a little of something, then you want more. So I thought back to my time with the girl. Every touch had been sweet, but unsatisfactory. None of it had been quite what I needed. And that bothered me.
It took me a while to figure it out, but five days was enough to give me the answers: I was missing Illya. I was working next to him all day, every day, but I was missing him. It was the way I didn't dare look to see the twinkle in his eye; the way I was forced to ignore all the nitpicky things he did, without griping or teasing him about them; but most of all it was not squeezing his arm when he looked miserable, and it was never being surprised by a pair of strong hands settling on my shoulders, rapidly working out a knot in my muscles, then subtly leaning me back to rest against hard, flat torso that makes me feel safe and loved, no matter what the situation.
I had never noticed how often Illya does that before. When I am on a solo mission, my body does not expect the touch and it is content to be left alone, but now, when I was with Illya, it yearned for it.
We left the dining room together after the meal and he paused outside my room, just as I put my hand on the door to go in. I felt a shiver run down my spine. Not now Illya. Whatever it is, I can't take it now.
'I thought you were stifling in here?'
How did he know that? I brushed it aside, but was puzzled for a second, before I realised what he was on about: it was my night to go out, and instead, I was going back to my room. 'I am, but going out didn't help.'
I hoped desperately that the longing look I was striving to keep out of my eyes was not the cause of the brief moment of confusion that passed across Illya's features, but for a long moment, Illya stared critically at me, ignoring our own rules for survival. It made my heart beat much faster, to feel blue eyes fastened on me, for what seemed like the first time in months. Don't look at me like that, I thought, Illya, please, you'll get us caught.
Illya seemed to settle his mind on whatever he was looking for. He turned and strode off to his room.
At ten to five on the Monday afternoon, we finished the last rack. I was carrying the items at this point. I was also trying hard to concentrate, but my eyes kept drifting to Illya's fingers, gripping the the pen that sped across the paper, leaving detailed notes behind it, cataloguing the last few weapons as easily as if they were simply the contents of his suitcase. I took the last piece back and dared to speak.
'That's everything. Are all the forms in order?'
'Yes,' he replied, with a displeased tone that made perfectly clear the unspoken 'Of course they are.' He got up and stretched, and I looked away, turning toward the door, raising my hands. I felt him come up behind me and for a second I half thought he would break the rules, but he raised his hands like me, and stood a pace away, waiting with me until the housekeeper appeared to let us out. She checked us over in her customary, ulterior-motiveless way, then took us up to Cartleigh, who stood to greet us.
'Completed?' he asked. I replied,
He nodded. 'Very well. In that case, I will spend the evening checking your work. You will remain here until I am satisfied. If all is well, you will be able to leave in the morning.'
I sat on my bed, elbows on my knees, and tried not to think about the fact that I could very well be in a position to do what comes naturally to me, in the morning. My whole body was screaming Now! Now! Now! and the concept of waiting a good eight or ten hours before it would be now was thrumming through me like poison, shooting my adrenaline levels sky-high and leaving me unfocused and feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve.
I didn't get much sleep, and, for good or ill, Santa didn't come a-knocking. I got up early, packed up my belongings and hot-footed it down to breakfast. Illya was already there, which surprised me. He had been cutting it fine the last few days, and if this was the last day before getting up early to get to the office again, I would have expected to take advantage of it. I know Illya likes his bed far more than he lets on, though he's very good at disguising it if you call a little early for him.
We ate in silence. The job may have been done, but you don't carelessly throw away good work of the sort we'd done if there's a possibility your position will stand you in good stead in the future. As we were finishing up, Mr Cartleigh came in, looking relatively genial.
'I have taken a look at your work, gentlemen,' he said, rubbing his hands together in a peculiarly greedy way. 'It seems that all is in order. You may leave as soon as you wish after breakfast.' He turned and left without another word. We were dismissed. It was as clear as the back of Mr Waverly's head. I took Illya's plate with mine back to the sideboard, then followed him out of the room and to the foot of the stairs. Illya practically scampered up them. I may be wrong, but I'm sure he was as eager to get out of that place as I was.
Ten minutes later we walking towards the car, parked out of sight of the main building, down the drive near the gate.
I wanted to take hold of Illya's hand, more than anything, I needed that level of contact, to feel Illya's warm, dry palm against my own. Unfortunately, I suspected that if I tried to hold Illya's hand, I would be drinking my meals through a straw for the next two weeks. A compromise was called for. As we stopped next to the car and put down our cases to open up, I held out my hand. Illya looked at it, puzzled.
'A job well done,' I said, 'Humour me, huh?'
Illya took my hand and shook it, with his customary firm grip. It was heaven, to feel that hand in mine, and part of me would have held on for ever, but the rational part of my brain knew that Illya was struggling with something and I wasn't doing him any favours by not ending this now.
'Illya?' I asked, when he failed to release my hand after a reasonable amount of time.
'Sorry,' replied Illya, letting go at once. 'I've rather missed...' He didn't finish, and I could not be quite sure whether he meant me, the contact, or something else entirely. We got into the car, I elected to drive, Illya having done the honours on the way there. I leaned back in my seat, relaxing as we drove along deserted stretches of open road. Illya, too, was leaning back in his seat, and he rested his arm along the backrest, his hand an inch from my shoulders, where I could feel it like a hot coal, burning my neck. I tried to talk to him a few times, but, for whatever, reason, he still was not talking to me. As if the enforced silence of the last week or so had locked us into a loop. The elation I had felt at leaving the place subsided and left me feeling strangely upset. I pursed my lips and drove on, lost in my thoughts.
We had been driving along like that for maybe twenty minutes, when someone dropped out of a tree into the back seat, and instead of waiting for us to notice them and give us a fighting chance, like all normal, well-adjusted villains do, they simply coshed us both on the heads and that was the last thing I knew for some time.
I woke up in the pitch dark and waited for the world to stop spinning around me, then performed my customary checks to find out what kind of condition I was in. As far as I could tell, I still had the use of all my limbs, and nothing hurt too badly except my throbbing head, which was still only bad enough to be bruising from whatever it was they had knocked me out with. I was lying on something warm and lumpy, which moved when I prodded it, and groaned.
'Illya?' I asked, smelling his familiar scent. Another irritable groan. I poked him again and he wriggled, which I took as a good thing.
'Where're we?' he asked groggily.
I shrugged, realised he couldn't see me '" though no doubt, from my location, he could feel me '" and said, 'A box of some sort. We're moving. Probably on a truck.'
'Oh. Any ideas?'
'Uh...' I braced my shoulders against the top of the box and pushed as hard as I could. It did not give an inch. 'No,' I said. I reached down to feel what I had in my pockets, but they had been cleared out. My shoes were too far away to reach and I had never had my communicator in the first place. You don't carry something as incriminating as that when you're working undercover. The bugs in the ties had been risky enough. 'Got anything stashed in your mouth?'
There was a slight pause, as if he were gathering his strength '" or his patience. Then, 'No.'
'Nothing?' I was surprised. He's usually got something handy nestled in amongst those pearly whites.
'We didn't know what kind of surveillance he was using, Napoleon. How would it have looked if he'd put us through an x-ray and found that his new agency worker was carrying a rack of lock-picks and detonators in his mouth?' He was trying to sound exasperated, but I knew that tone of voice and reached a hand out to roughly where I thought his face should be. True to expectations, his mouth turned up at the corners, though it swiftly turned down again when we hit a bump in the road and my finger jabbed him in the eye.
'Ow!' he yelped.
'Sorry. Well, who do you think got us?'
'Thrush. Or Mr Cartleigh. Or somebody else.'
'Oh, well, that narrows it down plenty.' I hung on as the truck seemed to turn a sharp corner and our box was catapulted to one side. He gasped, trying to hide it, and I let go.
'Are you injured?'
'No,' he said, 'They just must have thrown you in on top of me, and I could do with you being thirty pounds lighter.' It was his mock-petulant voice and I grinned. For all his sulkiness, there are few better people to be trapped in a tight spot with.
The truck skidded around another corner and the box slipped again. I felt us tilt up into the air and just had time to yell 'Brace!' and wedge my back and arms against the walls of the box, holding my stomach in hard, before we tipped up even further and experienced a, frankly terrifying, few seconds of weightlessness, before the edge of the box must have caught on something and we rolled over and over, losing a bit of speed at everything we hit, until we stopped dead.
I shook myself, amazed that I seemed to be in one piece and un-dazed. Chinks of light were showing through new cracks in the box and I heaved at it with my shoulders again. The box split a little, illuminating Illya, still stuck beneath me.
Really, I've seen him looking grim, but usually it's just injuries. Well, we both get plenty of them, and you just hold your partner and staunch the wounds and keep him warm and pretend you don't notice him wincing and moaning, even though your fingers clench into fists against his skin, especially if you know the bad guys got away. Because you tease and joke and whine about injuries in Section Two, but you don't show when it really hurts. But he didn't look injured. He looked frustrated and furious. He probably was hurting. I know I was. Rolling down a cliff in a wooden box doesn't do much for your appearance, but he'd already taken the battering from having me thrown in on top of him, and his breathing was gasping and too shallow. Probably a couple of ribs to fix up, but not so bad as to have damaged his lungs, or not from what I could hear, anyway.
I pushed harder and the box gave, the top half falling to the side. I got off him, trying not to put any pressure on him as I did so.
'I never even saw them coming at us,' he spat, his anger venting itself now that we were out of the confines of the box. When you're in a real jam like that, there's no point worrying about anything else, but once you're out... Ah well, he was only voicing what I thought. I could have kicked myself for not keeping a better eye open as we drove along. Should have expected an ambush... but you know what 'should have' did.
'Okay to move?' I asked, 'How are those ribs?'
'Bruised, but not badly,' he lied. I know when he's lying, but I also know better than to pull him up on it when we're already in trouble.
'All right then, I think a brisk run through these trees before our friends come to try and retrieve us would be in order. What say you, IK?' He shot me a dirty look and tried to push himself up out of the box. Even with my weight off him, he was struggling. I held out a hand, which he took without too much fuss, and pulled him to his feet.
I kept hold of his hand. He didn't try to stop me, just stumbled after me, trying not to look as woozy as he obviously felt. Together we crashed through the trees. Not exactly quietly, but I was more interested in putting some distance between us and our kidnappers. I was pretty sure they hadn't meant to lose us.
After a while I heard voices behind us. They were following. I pulled up, putting a hand against Illya's shoulder to stop him running into me. I hoped that without the noise of our progress, they'd lose track of where we'd got to, but no such luck. A man in a dull brown jump-suit with a gun levelled at us stopped at a fair distance. I thought quickly. Without our communicators we could not raise the alarm. We were both tagged up with positional transmitters, but it would take a long time for anyone back at headquarters to realise we were off track, and I didn't fancy spending much time with these fine specimens of ape-kind. Besides, Illya was injured, if only mildly, and I wanted him out of harm's way.
'Go on,' I hissed at him, 'Get away and find somewhere to call in, tell HQ where we are. I'll draw these ones off.' He looked around. Already a second gunman had appeared to the right, they were trying to encircle us. I had to get him out now. I saw the second gunman level his rifle, straight at Illya, saw his finger tighten on the trigger and I ran towards him, into the line of fire. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I heard the shot, saw Illya bolt for cover through the undergrowth until he was out of sight, then felt the pain flowing from my upper arm down to my fingertips. Stupid. Now they had me. I'd never throw them off with this. But I'm pretty sure I took that bullet for Illya, and I'd never begrudge that, not if it was the most idiotic thing in the world.
With a gunman behind me and one to each side, and an arm that would only leak more blood out of me if I got my heart pumping faster, it would have been foolish to make a break for it. Better to hold them here and hope it gave Illya a chance. I raised my hands painfully and waited as they approached me warily, guns still pointing straight at me.
'I'm all yours, gentlemen,' I said, giving them my best smile. They hate that—when you won't go all angry on them. Illya likes to play it the other way—impenetrably sullen—but he's better at it than me, and this way is much more fun.
I got another clout around the head for my trouble, and my head told me I'd been out for a good couple of hours when they booted me awake; a kick to the shoulder that made me yell.
'Who do you work for?'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Who do you work for?'
'Ah, I really couldn't say.' I was telling the truth. I couldn't possibly say. The success of our mission depended on Mr Cartleigh's buyers being unaware that we would be able to trace his...product.
'Who-' Another boot, to the back this time. I coughed and rolled onto my front, twisting my neck to keep an eye on him, to give myself a chance to brace when he kicked me again. '-do you work for?' Well, if this represented the sum total of his interrogation skills, then one: he wasn't Thrush, for which I would be grateful, since all it would take would be a photograph of me sent to Thrush Central for them to get a quick call back telling them exactly who I worked for. And two: he wasn't going to get anywhere fast.
Another kick in the ribs made something crack way down on my right side and I bit my cheek against the pain. My arm was still throbbing, so I concentrated on it instead. He continued in this vein for a while, until repetition, boredom and continual, aching pain dulled the edges for me and I started to daydream. Strong hands fell on my shoulders, gripping them tightly, and I arched into the contact, rolling my head back on my neck, enjoying the way strong fingers dug into my tired muscles. I always did love the way Illya does that. It's like he's giving himself an excuse to feel that I'm really there, still alive and breathing, just the way it looks. I say that because I do exactly the same with him. It's a transparent trick, but it's a sop to our normal agents' paranoia. And it feels good, too.
The Man with the Iron Boot must have realised he wasn't getting anywhere, because he shouted some orders to his men and left. They took hold of the manacles around my wrists and hooked up the connecting chain to a ring over my head, so I was left dangling beneath, just the tips of my toes touching the floor.
'Ah, I don't suppose I could get room service in here?' I asked politely, if rather croakily; my throat was dry as hell.
The men looked at me and one of them sneered, 'Nice try, mister. The boss says you don't eat or drink till you talk.'
'Uh-huh,' I replied, watching them leave.
I pulled myself up to take a look at the manacles. Always best to do the energetic stuff first, in case you don't have the strength later. I thought maybe I could work them loose, but they were good ones, and I was well locked in. I hate manacles. They chafe your wrists and cut off the circulation and, if you've been stripped of everything useful, as I had, they're damned tricky to get out of. So, starvation and dehydration seemed to be the order of the day. Mixed with a little light torture, the odd beating... oh, and—given the way my arms screamed when I didn't keep up on my toes to take the weight—sleep-deprivation into the bargain. Well, I could deal with that. I would, however, have liked to have known just who exactly I was dealing with.
Still, it gave me time to think. I replayed the morning, looking for where we'd gone wrong. I had been distracted when we'd been in the car. The proximity of Illya's hand to my shoulders, the fact that he was right next to me and I could, if I wanted to, reach across and squeeze his leg. He would have allowed that. He lets me do things like that. He lets me ruffle his hair, which is his only real vanity. He lets me straighten his lapels and brush the dirt from his shoulders and tweak his tie. It means he's my friend and I'm his, and it makes me feel... good, because he doesn't let anyone else do that. No-one. I've even seen him get a bit short with a girl when she starts to mess with him and his clothes. I assume he does let the girl undress him when they get to a certain point, but if he's just indulging in a bit of flirtation, a kiss or two, a dance, say, he gets irritated when they pluck at him. That right is reserved for me. Hell, that feels wonderful. It's one of my biggest secrets—how much I appreciate that.
Then we were surprised, probably because I was too distracted for an agent who was still, technically, on assignment. Then we landed up in a box. A box where I was lying on top of Illya, able to touch his face and squeeze his arms...and I hadn't taken advantage of the fact. Hadn't even really noticed that after just over a week's separation from him, a week spent behind a pane of glass, as it were, I was crowded up against him, with every opportunity to enjoy being near the man. That's the thing, you see. When we're working, and everything is normal, and I have him by my side, it's uncomplicated. We get on with what needs to be done. And when you're in a box hurtling down the side of a hill, what needs to be done is to remain focused and try to think of some way of getting out of there. The same once we were out. When you're running from the enemy, you grab your partner's hand only because it's the best thing to do to get you both out of there. It's only in the down-time moments, or the routine bits of the day—like, for instance, when you're spending hours and hours cataloguing a dull selection of weaponry—that the touches mean something else. That they mean... Hell, I don't know what they mean. All I know is that in that shed, or whatever it was, even though I wasn't with him, which is usually okay, since we spend half our assignments apart, I wanted him to be there.
Actually, I should qualify that. I always want him to be around. It's safer when he's watching my back and I'm watching his. It's just that usually I want him to be there because it makes me feel more secure. Safer. Now I just wanted him to be there because it would make me feel better. Less jittery. I'd never felt that way before.
I tried to nap, it was getting on for evening, but whenever I started to nod, my weight hung from the manacles and my wrists yelled blue murder at me. As it went dark, my host returned, kicked me in the balls, earning himself a place on my personal hatred list, and clouted me around the head again for good measure. To my disappointment, he failed to knock me out.
The night passed slowly, no sleep for the trussed-up agent, and occasionally one of Iron-Boots' men would come and shine a flashlight in my face to check I was still considering my position. I won't deny that I was feeling pretty ropey by the morning, and another session of unimaginative interrogation may not have advanced his cause, but it did nothing whatsoever for mine. Torture I can take, but I prefer my torturers to at least know what they're doing. A bit of style, a bit of professionalism. A well-trained bastard is a more dangerous bastard, but he's also a slightly more predictable bastard and often open to negotiation. There was no hope of that here. He wasn't going to let me say anything but what he wanted to hear. Had he been Thrush, I could have worked on his natural paranoia and greed. I know what all Thrushies are greedy for, but I really had no idea what motivated this man.
'So who are you?' I tried once or twice, when I could get a word in edgeways. He simply repeated his own question and gave me a bruised thigh to add to the rest of my indiscriminately painful body. I shut up. It's easier not to scream if your mouth isn't already open.
The next day I woke before dawn from the first five minutes of sleep I'd managed to get, wondering whether anyone would bother to come and rescue me, or if my transmitter had broken in the fall and I was now just another statistic on the 'missing in the field' list. I could no longer feel my hands—they were pushed into unimportance by the rest of me. I was thirsty, my tongue dry and sticky, my eyes gritty, my skin crawling with dirt and dehydration. I was past hunger—that's always the first discomfort to disappear—but I was starting to get the first flashing moments of hallucinations. The sleep would have sorted that out, but I had been woken by a flashlight in the face. They weren't going to let me have that pleasure. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and waited for the first blow of the day. It didn't come. Those same strong hands I'd fantasised about held my face, and a thumb gently raised my eyelid. I squinted out into cool blue eyes, wide with concern. I grinned, even though it hurt as my bruised muscles protested and my parched lips cracked.
Illya let go of my head and my eyelid drooped shut again. I felt his hands on my wrists, opening the manacles, releasing my arms. Then his own arm came about my waist from behind and he sank to the floor with me, easing me down to sit between his legs on the planks, taking hold of my hands and rubbing them firmly with his fingers, his arms around me, holding me tight as the blood rushing back into my starved fingers tingled, then burned, then seared through me. Making me gasp, then moan, then bite down on a scream I wouldn't let him hear. His touch was firm and business-like and so very Illya. No light, feathery touches from him, only pure strength and determination. And I wanted—needed—to touch him back. As the pain in my hands subsided until they were the parts that hurt the least again, I twisted them to take hold of his hands, and held on.
'What did they want, Napoleon?' he asked me. I leaned back against him, enjoying the way his thumbs were still rubbing fondly at the skin on my hands.
'Just to know what organisation I was with,' I croaked.
'I take it you didn't tell?' he said, but it was obvious that he trusted me; this was mere formality.
'Nope. He didn't try very hard.'
I felt his frown against the side of my head. 'Looks like he tried pretty hard to me.' I shook my head, then wished I hadn't as bells and drums started up a cacophony inside my skull. I let it settle, then replied,
'It was blunderbuss tactics. No finesse.'
He nodded. He knew what I meant. The very best interrogators can do it without leaving a mark on you. I was, to judge from the way he was treating me, looking less than my best by a considerable amount, and yet they'd never have broken me if they'd carried on all week.
Illya got out his communicator and started to assemble it. I had a thought and asked,
'Did my transmitter break?'
He frowned at me and shook his head. 'No. I'm not sure we would have found you without it.' The thought made me shiver. 'I got back to HQ quite quickly, but Mr Waverly wouldn't let me come and get you until I'd been checked out by medical,' He scowled, 'And they refused to clear me for duty until they'd run x-rays and mauled me about for a while, so by the time I'd assembled a back-up team, I couldn't get out of the building till late last night. It was awkward getting here. The roads are appalling.'
'Why didn't Mr Waverly send someone else?' I regretted saying it the instant the words left my mouth. I knew the answer.
'We'd finished the case. He knew you wouldn't talk. He said I could come since I ought to be on post-affair leave anyway.'
'What about the back-up?'
'I...' He looked shifty. 'I borrowed them. That's why we're here so early. Most of them are due into work at nine and I said they'd be back in time.'
I grinned, I couldn't help it, and he touched my lip, drawing back his finger with a drop of blood sitting on the tip. He held it up in front of my eyes. 'We need to get you back to civilisation,' he said, wiped the blood on my shoulder and got up to a crouch. Immediately I missed his warmth.
'Can you stand?' he asked.
I shrugged—another bad move—and made the attempt. I couldn't get up. My muscles ached too much and hanging from your wrists for a couple of days is bad for the stability. He slipped an arm around my chest and heaved me up. I couldn't help the pained roar that escaped my lips, but he pretended not to notice—there was no real choice if I wanted out of there.
'You smell terrible,' he complained, and I suspected that it was true. Even so, I was suddenly ludicrously happy; not only because he was with me, so it was going to be all right, but also because I knew he was thinking of all the times I've called him smelly and filthy in the line of duty, and, unfortunately, usually meant it.
He walked me outside, taking nearly all my weight for me, and we stood in the fresh morning air, breathing out little puffs of steam. He held the communicator up and called in to Headquarters.
'Go ahead, Mr Kuryakin.' Mr Waverly sounded just like he always does. I sometimes wonder if that man ever sleeps when we're on assignment. You can call in anytime and he'll pick up the call sounding as fresh as a daisy.
'I've got Napoleon, sir, alive and only a little injured.' Illya replied, his fingers tightening, almost imperceptibly about me, making me wince inwardly.
'And his kidnappers?'
Illya paused, I presumed his illicit back-up team were dealing with them, but Mr Waverly wouldn't be overly pleased about that. 'They are being dealt with, sir.'
'Very well, tell your team that I expect them all in to work on time tomorrow morning, no excuses. Can't have you taking people off gallivanting if it's going to affect the rest of the organisation you know.'
Illya raised an eyebrow, clearly relieved to have been let off, even if he was uncertain as to how exactly Mr Waverly knew. 'I'll head back myself now sir, to give you my report before I clock off for my lea-'
Mr Waverly cut him short. 'No, Mr Kuryakin, since you are there, you will co-ordinate the clean-up operation. Report back when it is completed.'
Illya hesitated, glancing at me leaning against him, my head falling against his shoulder. 'But Sir, Mr Solo needs medical attention quickly.'
There was a pause at the other end of the line as if Mr Waverly was trying to fathom what Illya had just said. Then he spoke, in the voice he uses when the matter is, in his opinion, obvious.
'Then send him back with the medics. Surely you don't need him to hold your hand while you sort everything out there?'
Illya grimaced and his hand left my waist. 'No sir.'
'Good, well, er, see to it that Mr Solo is on his way back. I should hate to have him out of action for longer than is strictly necessary. And, er, get on with it, will you?' He signed off, and I smiled inwardly. Mr Waverly is the only man I know who can make a definite and well thought-out order sound like an uncertain, off-the-cuff suggestion, and still have you follow it to the letter.
Illya changed the channel on the communicator and called up the moonlighting medics he had brought with him, just in case. He should have been a Boy Scout. I was too tired and hurting too much to complain, but he knew I'd be annoyed to be given straight into their care. If it wasn't for the bullet in my arm, which was throbbing and feeling infected, I would have argued my case to go home and rest up for a day or two, rather than go back to Medical; but I did want my arm looking at, and Illya wouldn't want to leave me alone while he worked, I knew that much.
The medics showed up a few minutes later, and he handed me over, giving my hand a last squeeze. I was too drowsy to return it, and just slumped into the arms of the nearest medic, letting them carry me away to the waiting van.
The clean-up must have taken longer than Illya had expected (though not longer than Mr Waverly expected, I noticed), because he hadn't arrived when they took me into theatre to carve up my arm to get out the infected tissue and the bullet lodged in my humerus that was causing it. I came round again to find that Illya had been and gone, apparently having satisfied himself as to whether I would be all right. I'd been very lucky: no cracking of the humerus, no damage to the radial nerve, which is always a worry. The doc said that he had told Illya to come back in the morning, since I was liable to be asleep for much of the evening. I was surprised, and slightly disappointed, that Illya had accepted this, since he knew I always recovered quickly after anaesthetic, but I had other things to worry about. I can time myself almost to the minute on my reaction to general anaesthetic. I clocked an hour and a half from the time I had woken up, reached into the cabinet by my bed, pulled out the bowl I had known would be in there, and patiently waited to throw up. Having gotten this out of my system without alerting any of the doctors or nurses, I placed the bowl back in the cupboard, hoping against hope that they weren't keeping me under visual observation, they'd only fret about me vomiting, but I'm always fine once it's over. I only hope they check those cupboards in between patients, or someone could get a nasty surprise.
I drank up the re-hydrating solution they'd left by my bed. Two days isn't enough to dry you out too much—just enough to make you feel like a dried-up sponge, but it's good to get the liquid flowing again. I rang the bell and asked to see the doctor again. He came striding in, wanting to know the problem. I told him there was no problem. Which was a lie. I was desperate to see my partner. I wanted to see him, to thank him for the rescue (though probably not in so many words—you know...) and to feel his arm under my hand now that I was alert enough to feel it again.
The doctor frowned. Clearly he didn't believe me. I hastened to explain.
'Look, Doc, I don't really need to be here. You've done a swell job on my arm, and if you say the rest of me is just cuts and bruises, I'd sooner be at home than cluttering up the beds and distracting the nurses here.' I'm not sure why I added that last bit—I didn't feel like distracting any of them that night, but I do distract them—I've dated too many of them not to—and he knew I did. He nodded slowly. We would usually like to keep you in, especially if you will be on your own. The after-effects of the anaesthesia...'
'I've done it a hundred times. If I haven't had a problem by now, I know I'll be all right.'
He nodded again. 'Well, you have bruising almost everywhere, so you can expect to be very sore for the next few days. I want to see you back here tomorrow afternoon, at three, to check on that arm, and I don't expect to see your name on the duty roster for a week. Understand?' I nodded, fingers crossed under the sheets. He knows Section Two agents too well.
An hour later I'd wheedled my way out of Medical, picked up my spare set of clothes and some money from my locker, and grabbed a taxi to take me to Illya's. I wasn't about to wait until morning. He has made it clear on numerous occasions that, although in the normal way of things, I am very welcome to turn up unannounced at his apartment, the night after we have returned from an assignment away, he likes to be left alone. I think it helps him to remember that here he has a place of his own and it really is all his. However, tonight I was keen for him to make an exception.
I paid off the driver and staggered up to his building, stumbling to the elevator and almost falling inside, where I leant against the wall, recovering my strength. I'd used up most of it pretending to be fine and dandy so that they'd let me out.
I hauled myself out at the top, and managed to persuade my legs to move down the hall to his apartment door. It kinda gives you an idea of how badly I needed to see him that I could make it there at all. I was aching inside. To hell with the physical injuries, I had a lump in my chest the size of the Empire State, and it hurt more than any of the bruises. I recognised it as part adrenaline, part desperation; a ball of need that made my breathing too fast and my throat fill up with a lump I didn't want to recognise. The worst of it was—is—I don't know why. I've been in the same situation dozens of times '" the same sort of kidnapping, similar rescues, the same injuries, the same reaction from my partner... Yet on this night, after this only slightly unusual week, I was reduced to a needy sack of useless flesh whose requirement that his partner be available to his touch was blocking out everything else.
I knocked on his door and heard his footsteps approach the door, I waited while he looked through the spy-hole, heard his change in tempo as he rapidly undid all the locks and bolts and alarms we all keep on our front doors to make us feel like we can sleep at nights. The door opened and I tried to lean casually on the door frame, as a preferable option to just falling straight through.
'I feel dreadful,' I admitted. He looked me up and down, and although I don't ever expect pity from him, I'm not sure that wasn't anything to do with what was on his face.
'Come in then.' He didn't try to help me. He knows me too well for that. I took a deep breath, summoned up my strength, and went to sit on the couch. Illya's couch is always piled up at one end with books and papers, so that we can only sit close together, or not at all. I remember on one of the first occasions I came here, when I had started to feel a little more at home, I moved the pile to the coffee table to give us more room. I was severely berated—in fact, if I remember correctly, he came at me with a bread knife—and I have never dared to do it again.
'Tea? Or vodka?' he asked. 'I'm afraid that's all there is. I'm out of coffee,' he added mournfully. Now, I know that being in a bit of an emotional state and still drugged up on Medical's pain pills, I should not have gone near the vodka, but Illya makes his tea Russian-style and it's like drinking lemony bath-water, so I asked for vodka, for which I received a raised eyebrow and a double measure.
He came and sat down right next to me on the couch and I shuffled further into his books to let him sit more comfortably.
Coward that I am, I decided to open with the cheap-shot easy stuff. 'Did you find out who my hosts were for my little sojourn in the country?'
He ran a hand through his hair and fiddled with his glass, running a thumb around and around the rim. 'Turns out Mr Cartleigh's supplier was not as legitimate as we imagined. They weren't Thrush, but they were affiliated. Looks like Thrush were using Mr Cartleigh as a not-so-innocent third party, to hide their links with less savoury characters. He didn't know, I don't suppose—that would have made him too dangerous. I think the man who borrowed you was protecting his own interests. Any outside parties having an interest in his merchandise would have risked the whole operation, and I imagine it was a fairly lucrative little business.'
'Will Thrush have gotten wind of his arrest?' I asked. If they had, it would alert them to the danger and our work would have been for nothing.
Illya shook his head. 'We failed to make an arrest.'
'He got away?'
'He tried to. I prevented it. We have made it look like an unfortunate internal squabble. It will not make Thrush suspicious.' That slightly terrifying bloodlust burned momentarily in his eyes, making the vodka in my hand suddenly seem very appealing.
He nodded. 'So, is it just the injuries, or do I have to guess?' He tossed back his vodka, refilled the glass and gestured at mine with the bottle. I shook my head—at least I had the presence of mind to do that. But he surprised me with his next words.
'You've been out of sorts all through this assignment.' Illya doesn't mention that sort of thing. Neither of us do. We'd spend our lives getting reports on our assorted injuries otherwise, and there aren't enough hours in the day—not unless one of us is feeling particularly hard done-by and wants some sympathy doling out.
'I've been out of sorts?'
He frowned at me, but got up and spoke, using the voice he uses when he's trying to cajole me into a better mood, or tease me out of a bad one. 'You've been grumpy since the first day at Mr Cartleigh's.'
'True.' I saw no point in denying it, 'But you've been unreachable.'
'Hmm.' He walked round behind me and leaned on the back of the couch, breathing vodka into my ear. I knew the look on his face, could feel the gentle, teasing smile without looking. 'Reaching me in any way would have jeopardised the mission rather, wouldn't it?'
I was confused. I mean, I know we were meant to be distant on the assignment, but that wasn't what I'd meant, and he knew it. He rested his hands on my shoulders, so lightly it didn't hurt, and his thumbs dug in just enough to feel good. I felt the lump in my chest swelling and I wanted to scream and scream, to let all my frustration out in one long burst. But I held it in and listened to him instead.
'Napoleon, Mr Waverly was right. We are used to a lot of contact. Too used to it, really. It was...difficult to maintain the distance between us to the level required. You found it hard, I found it...' He sighed, let go of my shoulders and came back round to sit next to me. 'I didn't mean to make you feel bad, but I was...worried that if I looked at you, Mr Cartleigh would kn-think.'
'What?' I hadn't missed his little verbal slip. Was he going to say know? That was the same slip I'd made, if only in my thoughts. The lump grew bigger, and I knew I couldn't stay. I made a great show of yawning and looking the worse for wear—not remotely difficult, given my actual state. He frowned.
'You should get to bed,' said Illya.
'I know. I'll go home. I just wanted... Why did you let the doctor bully you out of coming back to Medical tonight to see me? Didn't you want to see me? You know I recover quickly.' He looked hurt for a moment.
'Of course I wanted to see you, and yes I do know you recover quickly. I also know that the likelihood of your staying in a hospital bed when you're not sedated or immobilised is small. I'd rather see you here than there. If you hadn't arrived here within another hour or so, I would have come to check on you.'
I felt a warm glow spread itself through me, lighting a fire under the lump, making it swell further. I definitely could not stay. I got up, ignoring the aches and the twinges and the fact that both legs were shaking like jello. I trusted my pants legs to hide that unimportant fact from Illya's eyes.
'Are you in a fit state to go home?' he asked. I nodded and headed slowly to the door. 'I'll come with you and make sure you get a cab.' He's never this solicitous usually, but I guess I did look pretty bad. He took me by the arm and I thought for a second that I felt his fingers shake on my arm, but it was probably only my own tremors being transmitted to him. We made our way down to the street, where he waited on the corner with me. It wasn't late and there were plenty of cabs about. He tipped me into the first one that came along, and trailed his hand up over my shoulder for a moment too long before he shut the door and gave directions to the driver. I could see his pale hair shining in the street-lights as he watched me out of sight.
When I got back to my apartment, after a gruelling, half-hour climb of the stairs, I crashed on my bed at once. I pulled out my communicator once the bruises had stopped protesting so badly, and called Illya. I had to know.
'You're home?' he asked, a little more concern than usual colouring his voice.
'Safe and sound. Illya, I wanted to ask you. You said I found it hard not being able to talk to you, or to... interact with you the way I usually do. Then you said you found it, something or other, but you didn't say what.' It was a stupid question. He probably hadn't meant anything by it, only that we both ought to be able to keep our distance more easily.
'Intolerable, Napoleon. Sleep well.' He cut the line. The bastard cut me off, when I was hurting and confused and...it took me a moment to connect his words back to his original sentence. You found it hard, I found it...intolerable. I pocketed my communicator and lay back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the long-overdue sleep to take me.
Sleep took its time, and when it came, I dreamed too much. I was tied up in a straitjacket, Illya across from me, and we were helpless to do anything Even Illya's contortionist skills could not get him out, though he tried and tried. I was in a cave, in semi-darkness, walking down a tunnel, and I could see Illya ahead of me, golden hair gleaming, just as it had under the street-lights, but I could not catch up with him, no matter how fast I ran. I was screaming his name, my heart pounding in my chest, tears I'd never shed in real life streaming down my cheeks as I pleaded with him to stop, to turn around, to do something, anything, to touch me. I was next to Illya, working with him, but he refused to acknowledge me at all, would not talk to me, would not let me anywhere near him. I turned to him and grasped his arms, forcing him to acknowledge me, to look at me. He closed his eyes and pulled away, hard, leaving me sprawling in my chair.
I woke up panting, my heart beating as fast as in my dreams, feeling sick and lonely. My arm ached, but it was nothing. I wanted to see Illya, an irrational desire, a necessity. If I couldn't see him, how could I know he wasn't dead or gone back to Russia or... I picked up my communicator and put it together. Then I stopped. I looked at the clock. Four a.m. He wouldn't thank me for waking him up now. He'd be fine. Of course he would. What was I thinking? I felt like a kid again. A kid who had woken up believing his parents had left him and who wouldn't believe otherwise until he had crept into their bedroom and snuck in between them. Like hell I was going to do that to him. He'd think I'd gone completely crazy.
I put the communicator away again and lay back down, hoping to drift off to a more peaceful sleep, but an hour later I was still awake, trying very hard not toss and turn, because every inch of me still ached. I gave up, got up, and went to fetch a cup of coffee and a couple of aspirin. Thus armed, I pulled on a robe and opened the doors onto the balcony, letting the chilly, early morning air in, and myself out. I stood there, hugging my coffee and watching the city wake up.
Despite my early start and my night-time restlessness, I couldn't think of anything much to do. I held off calling Illya, simply because it felt like the start of a slippery slope. He'd have things to do today. He'd be on leave, yes, but there's always something to do when you've been away for a week. In fact... I went to the kitchen and opened up the refrigerator. There was nothing inside. For once I had actually remembered to clear out the perishables before I left. There was cereal on the shelf overhead, so I pulled down the box and poured myself a bowl, then realised there was no milk. It didn't matter. I had time to kill before my afternoon appointment.
I put on a record, sat down on the couch, and started to eat my dry cereal, gazing across at the mantle-piece and the postcard sitting in the middle of it. It's a photograph of the statue of Hercules and Diomedes by Vincenzo de Rossi, which stands in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. There's a story behind it. Not long after we first started going on assignment together, we found ourselves following a series of written clues on a treasure hunt around Paris for a stash of stolen secrets. Having acquired the first clue by slightly underhand means, I admit I relied on the logical brain of my partner to work out the rest of the trail. We spent evenings in our hotel room, puzzling over the next clue, until suddenly Illya would click his fingers, and smile that stunning, triumphant smile of his, poke me in the shoulder and reveal the answer, almost bubbling over with excitement. While we were still in Paris, I sent him a postcard of Rodin's Thinker, for him to pick up when he got back. We'd had a few close calls with the gentlemen we were attempting to beat to our goal, so I wrote a note on the back: 'So you have someone to think for you when I'm not around. Just in case. NS.' Once he caught on to the joke, he appreciated it, and kept it on the wall in his kitchen for months.
Almost a year later, we were on assignment in Italy and wound up tied together in a cellar, and it took us two hours of straining, contorting ourselves and struggling together to work our way out of the bindings and escape. It involved a lot of holding each others' limbs while we pushed at the rope, slipping our arms around each other to pull the rope in the other direction. By the time we got out, we were hot, sweaty, and more familiar with each others' bodies than we had been before. About a week after we arrived home, the postcard dropped into my mailbox, with a message on the back: 'So you have someone to hold onto when I'm not around. Just in case. IK.'
I remember vaguely noting at the time that he had memorised the wording on the back of my card.
I looked at the card now—two men in some sort of a struggle together, one man holding the other upside-down, presumably under the impression that he's winning whatever fight it is that they're having, except that the upside-down man is just about to close his fist around his captor's...ahem, yes. Only in Italy. No wonder he put it in an envelope to send it. It bothered me. Here I was, sitting in my apartment after a difficult affair, having spent day after day with my partner, and all I wanted was to see him again. The image of the postcard burned itself into my eyes. What did I actually want from him? To talk? Yes, but not much. Not more than usual. We don't need to talk much. To touch him then? Yes. Just the way I always have. But I'd been doing that since he'd come to rescue me, and it hadn't made a scrap of difference.
I wanted to know that he was there, right next to me, to put my hand out at any time and have him right there. Not even to have to do that, just to have him there, in my arms... Uh, that's not quite what I meant. Whatever I say, I make it sound like I want him to behave...like a woman, for me. And that's not what I want at all. I don't want him to be any different. I just need... I still need...
Well, what do you do when all you want to do is grab hold of your partner and never let him go? Simple. Especially if your name is Napoleon Solo. You do nothing, until you're both too old or damaged to do anything about it, or more likely, given our line of work, until one or both of us catches the sharp end of whichever bullet, explosion, poison or sharp pointy bit of metal has our final name on it. You do nothing. Just fight the bad guys and hope everything else goes away while you're busy.
I was still trying to read the fifth chapter of my book when Illya arrived and let himself in. It was two o'clock, and I'd been considering getting dressed to go keep my appointment. He looked me up and down, taking in my robe and slippers and the evidence of too many cups of coffee and most of a packet of dry cereal.
'You're not looking your best,' he said. I love him some days, he just makes me feel so good...
'I was about to change,' I said, wishing that I couldn't link the renewed pounding in my chest to the moment of his appearance at the door.
'I thought you could use a lift.' He walked towards me and I got up, feeling every single one of the bruises on my legs and stomach muscles. I saw his forehead contract slightly, adding another little line to his growing collection. I stayed still for a second, finding my balance. I felt a helluva lot better than the night before, I heal quickly, but I still hurt, and he knew it.
'How are your ribs?' I asked, to deflect his concern. He shrugged non-commitally and picked up my dishes, taking them back to the kitchen.
'Go change,' he said. 'I'm not taking you anywhere looking like that.'
'Yes Mom,' I grinned. He huffed at me, but he was hiding a smile as he turned away. I think he was relieved to see me upright after the way I'd looked the night before. You found it hard, I found it...intolerable. Hum.
I didn't need his help to get to Medical. He drove me, but I walked alone and he waited outside for me, while I had the wound re-dressed and my bruises prodded in a businesslike manner. Having given my oath that I was going home to rest, I was released once more and Illya drove me home.
'Do you have anything to eat?' he asked as we pulled up near my building. I looked across at him,
'Why? You hungry?'
He shook his head, 'Napoleon, I have plenty of food at home. I just don't want you attempting to live on dry cereal for the next couple of days.'
I wondered whether to ask him in. We could get take-out and chat and watch the sun go down from my balcony. I looked across at him. If I did that, I was going to end up throwing my arms around him, and I didn't think I could take any more injuries just at that moment.
'Want me to see you up?' he asked, his hands still gripping the wheel tightly. I shook my head. I'd wait until tomorrow. The bruising would be fading by tomorrow. I'd feel better. Then perhaps this irrational neediness would go away.
'I'm okay. I'll run a bath, soak for a while, then go to bed. Is that all right?'
He gave me an exasperated look. 'Yes. As if you would listen to me.' I clapped him on the shoulder, like I always do. I wasn't even thinking about it. But he jumped and I snatched my hand back and he stared at me and I panicked because I didn't know what had just happened, and I hate not knowing what's going on.
'My hands are still bruised,' I almost yelled at him in frantic explanation, and leapt out of the car, slamming the door behind me and going as fast as I could to the main doors of my building.
Two hours later I'd had my bath and realised I'd made a mistake. I was so lonely I could feel it eating me up. I considered: I was in no state to take a girl to bed, but I could take one to a restaurant without any difficulty. My appetite was...okay: not great, but then a date doesn't rely on you stuffing food into your mouth all evening. I looked through my little book, dismissing some names...actually, dismissing all names. I couldn't find a single girl I wanted to be with tonight. Every one conjured up a beautiful image in my head, but my fists clenched in the air, knowing that wrapping my hands around their delicate fingers would not be enough. If only I knew what I wanted. But I didn't. I slouched in my seat, waiting for the world to turn enough for a new day to begin, until finally, at ten-thirty, I gave up, threw on soft pants and a polo shirt, to avoid aggravating my bruises, and headed to the garage to fetch my car. I could have walked to Illya's, but the agent in me doesn't like to expose myself on the street at night when I'm not firing on all cylinders.
In ten minutes I was outside his door again. I could have let myself in, he had let himself into mine, after all; but I like to give him his privacy. I get the feeling he needs it more than I do. So I rang the bell and waited.
He answered the door looking flushed and irritable, his hair sticking up in all directions. His expression softened when he saw me, then flashed annoyance so briefly I wasn't sure I'd seen it, before switching to concern again.
'What's wrong?' he asked.
'Nothing. I was just... It was kinda quiet and I thought...' I looked him over. His robe was open to the waist and he was naked beneath it. The flush of red on his face continued down his throat and onto his chest, accompanied by a fine sheen of sweat. 'I'm sorry,' I said, suddenly realising that I'd interrupted something private.
He shook his head, 'Don't be. It's not... Look, I'm sorry I can't ask you in...unless you really need to?' I could have sworn he sounded slightly hopeful, but this was a figment of my imagination.
'Illya?' a female voice called from the depths of his apartment. I smiled sheepishly, though my stomach was churning again and my head was beginning to swim. He looked suddenly annoyed.
'You can come in, if you want. You don't want to stand out there. She can wait.'
'Uh, no, Illya, I don't think she'd appreciate that, somehow.'
'Illya?' A slight whine in the voice this time. He visibly bristled.
'Wait! It is important!' he shouted back at her. I didn't recognise her voice, but then I don't really know where Illya's bed-mates come from. I assume he does have them with a certain regularity, after all, we all have to let off steam and he's no saint. I dropped my gaze to the blue towelling, parted to below his navel, and he sighed and wrapped it more tightly about himself. 'I am truly sorry, Napoleon,' he said. I think he meant it.
'Not to worry,' I said, with a levity I did not feel in the slightest. 'I'll catch up with you tomorrow.'
He ran his fingers through his hair, flattening it a little. Then he nodded, shrugged, and started to close the door. Then he reached out a hand, grabbed my wrist, and hissed, 'Go to bed. I want you to recover quickly.'
He let go, the door closed and I went back to my apartment feeling worse than I had before.
Strangely enough, I slept well. I dreamed, but the dreams were better. I was walking with Illya and it was as if the last week and a half had never happened. I was sitting by his side in a theatre, while he also performed some peculiar dance on the stage. I was in my apartment with him, watching the sun set, just as I had considered for the evening before.
I woke to the sound of my communicator and groaned. Mr Waverly, no doubt, telling me my sick leave was cancelled for some major international incident.
'Illya? What time is it?' I could have looked at the clock, but my eyes were still sleep-blurred.
'Ten. Are you still in bed?'
'I hadn't woken up.'
'Lazybones.' I could hear the amusement in his voice. 'Do you feel more human today?'
'Give me a minute and I'll tell you.' He waited. I stretched, glad to feel only the dullest of aches from my ribs and back. I swung my legs out onto the floor and stood up. The room stayed where it should and my legs supported me easily. I looked down my body. I had the most spectacular rainbow of colours practically everywhere, but I didn't hurt anything like as much.
'I feel quite good, actually. You want to see me though, I look like some deranged artist has been over me with his oil colours.'
He laughed, 'You still have to beat my bruises after the Human Cannonball Affair.' He was right: those really had been doozies.
'I think I might be onto a winner here.'
The was a moment's silence, then he asked, 'Can I come over?'
'Sure. Give me five minutes to get up.'
'Well, all my limbs seem to be working again, so five should about do it.'
'I'll be over in ten.' He signed off and I headed for the bathroom.
I was excited. I recognised the feeling. It was the one I get before Christmas Day, even though it's rarely anything special these days. The same one I get when I've got a really beautiful woman to take out. The same one I get when all the bad guys have been rounded up and all I'm waiting for is for Illya to press the button and wipe out another major threat to world peace. It's pumping adrenaline and a happiness so intense it plasters a grin on my face that I can barely erase. I usually try to kill it, because there's nothing more off-putting to a woman than having her date grin like a fool all evening. I couldn't stop now though. I pulled on a pair of shorts and washed my face. My cleaned laundry was mostly stacked in the corner of the living room—I hadn't gotten around to putting it away yet—so I wandered out of the bathroom...and found Illya sitting on my couch, reading chapter six of my book.
He jumped up when he saw me and I felt a frantic burst of pleasure at the sight of him. He studied my bare legs and torso, tilting his head to the side.
'Turn around,' he said after a moment. I complied and felt his gaze rake my back. I turned back to face him and raised a questioning eyebrow, trying to keep calm and collected.
'I think,' he said slowly, and as if it were costing him great effort to say. 'I think I shall have to hand over my crown. Those are very impressive. How's your arm?' He reached out two fingers and lightly touched the dressing. I shrugged,
'Not so bad.'
His fingers hovered near my arm. He was standing right in front of me and I could feel his body heat. He seemed to be breathing a bit strangely, and his eyes were unfocused. I could smell him, I could see him, I could sense him, and suddenly I couldn't not touch him any more.
I reached out and clamped my hands around his forearms, holding him right where he was. He looked at me in confusion and I shook my head. I had no idea what I was going to do now. I just...just needed to keep a hold of him. I could pull him closer so easily, wrap my arms around him and hold on tightly—make everything seem better. But I couldn't move. I was paralysed, an idiot, standing in nothing but his underwear, holding his friend in the strangest way and completely unable to do anything about it.
He jerked one arm out of my grasp, and for a moment I thought he was going to hit me. He stared at me, judging something in my expression, then he took hold of my shoulder with the freed hand and squeezed. He pulled himself in with that hand, until his body was pressed against mine, and it gave me the impetus to move. So now I let go of his other arm, and it snakes around me, pulling me closer, and his head is on my shoulder and he is squeezing me tightly, and I need him to let go because the bruises are still there and they hurt now, they really hurt, but I am holding him just as tightly, so there is no way that he can know that I want him to let go.
'It was intolerable. The whole week,' he whispers in my ear, and I nod, because I can do that without having to make my vocal cords do what I want them to do.
He's pulling away now, and in one sense it's a relief, because the places where he's touched me are throbbing and sore, but in every other way, it is the worst thing that has ever happened.
His hands are on my cheeks, stroking and soothing, and I don't know what he's doing, but I don't much care, so long as he doesn't let go. I put my hands on his shoulders, pull him closer, and he lets me do it, shuffles even closer, and lays his forehead against mine and... Hell, what's he doing? He is kissing my split, painful lips. And the world is exploding. Hell, it feels good. it feels wonderful. My God, he... His lips are plucking at mine, and the pain doesn't matter at all. I don't even know where his hands are, I just know that every nerve in my body thinks he's touched it. This is it. This is what I was waiting for. This is what I was missing without ever even having had it. God, Illya...
But this man can kiss, and he knows what he wants to happen. His hands are on my bare shoulders, stroking down my arms like firebrands. I can't breathe. He's going to kill me. But what a way to go... Illya...
He's pulling me hard against him again, and he is hard against me, I can feel him in his cheap black pants, pressing into me. That's for me, not that woman he had last night. I shouldn't ask really. I won't ask...
'Who was the girl last night?'
He's stepped back. Damn. Damn damn damn. Couldn't keep your mouth shut Solo, could you? He looks irritated.
'No-one, Napoleon.' He can barely speak, he's breathing so hard, and he's so hot, so hot... 'I thought I could...get this out of my system, but...' He doesn't need to finish. He did the same as me. Tried to fix things with something that wasn't what he wanted. I wonder if he knew what he wanted before now. Before now...? Christ, I'm standing, mostly naked in the middle of my apartment, kissing my very aroused partner, with a rock hard erection of my own, and no part of me has even thought to ask why.
His hands are in my hair and I want to kiss him again, but he's holding back, running a firm hand down my chest, sliding it across my tender ribs, as if he wants to touch every inch of me. Well, two can play at that game, my friend. My hands are shaking so hard, I don't think I can do this, but I going to try. I'll get that shirt off him if I have to rip it off with my teeth.
There, that's the buttons. He hasn't stopped me yet. He's pushing me towards the couch, but I don't want to go there. I want to take him to bed. I want to throw him down there and spend time tracing every inch of his body with my fingers. I want to...
I can't think. Can't think. Illya, stop! This isn't what I expected. Not at all. I never... But god, it's... My groin is on fire, it's unbearable. Hell, I've never been this hard...and Illya is... Ah! Illya is like he is when he's going for the kill. All barely controlled passion. Dangerous. If I really asked him to stop, I wonder if he actually would.
His neck fills my palm, I can grab at it and he just growls at me and I can do this without holding back. Ah, Illya...
And he's beautiful. I've always known that. Illya, you are beautiful, my friend. I couldn't have lived so long with those blue eyes, that devastatingly pouting mouth, that—oh the hell with it—gorgeous hair, without knowing it was something special, but I've never seen him quite like this before. He never trusts anyone this much. Never. Only me. Only me.
The doorbell is ringing. Uh, should I answer? I can't remember whether I should or not. What have I done in the past? God knows. The past is beating a hasty retreat, floating off on a life-raft to escape the sinking Solo.
'Napoleon, don't you dare.'
'But you did, last night, and you were-'
'That's different,' he interrupts me, 'I was-' God, he's interrupting himself to kiss me, as if he really can't wait. Uh... '-uninterested, and it had to be you at the door.'
It had to be me at the door? I'm pulling him closer, hard against me. I need to sit down so badly, I can feel my knees starting to give, but he's got me. I've never been able to say that in this situation before. I've always got them...
'I'm not carrying you, Napoleon.'
'Huh?' I feel drugged for a moment, but now his hand is slipping inside the back of my shorts, rough fingers trailing down between my buttocks, firm and determined, and my mind is suddenly clear as crystal, and here we are, it's just Illya and me, the way it's always been, only more so.
Adrenaline returns strength to my legs, and now I step out of my shorts, pushing him towards the bedroom, taking control, except I'm not, because somehow he is guiding me, his hands tight about my arms, warm... Illya, you are...you are...
We've fallen onto the bed, with him lying on me, my bruised limbs and ribs complain and I shoot them down. What the hell's it got to do with them anyway? It's all about this man pinning me to the bed, his forearm across my brow, other arm reaching between us to play merry havoc with what little self-control I have left.
I've never had a... a sexual encounter this rough before, and I love it. Not because it's rough—I could get that from one or two of the women I date if it's what I wanted—but because it's Illya, this is him, and, despite being practically the opposite of what I expected, everything is just as it should be.
He is being so ludicrously careful with my arm, it's one of the least serious ops I've ever had, and I've had plenty; but then, I am being careful with his ribs, so we're even. You can stare into my eyes like that, breathing through that goofy grin, for all eternity, as far as I'm concerned. Whoops! That was one of his ribs, after all, it brought tears to his eyes. I hate that we're both hurting so much for this.
He's trying to move down my body, to see what he's doing with the hand that's on my leg, so close to my straining... hell, no wonder I can't think straight, all the blood in my body must be in there by now. I won't let him move though, I can't let him go. I tighten my arms around him and he gasps in pain again.
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'
'No.' That's it: that's all he can say between heaving breaths. The pain doesn't matter. His kisses are deep and taste of New York and that vile kasha he eats at home. I can't- Oh, god, Illya, touch me like that again and it's all over -I can't stand the stuff, but I could kiss him forever in spite of it.
He's kicking his pants off, within the confines of my arms, somehow he's found a way to do it, and he's naked against me.
He rolls onto his back, pulling me with him, and I let go enough to sit up, not quite keeping my weight off his legs, but he can take it. Ah, Illya, tousled, flushed-cheeked Illya, chest heaving, lips parted, tongue out to lick them in short flicks.
He's kicking me... No, he's trying to get one leg up onto my shoulder, but it's tricky with his ribs screaming at him, so I help, glad he's chosen my good arm, because his heel catching the bruises is enough. He tugs me in, pressing our erections together. Well, my friend, we can't complain we're not ready.
Who gives a damn anyway? After all the women I've slept with and the number of times he's warned me, and been right, I'd be a fool not to trust him this time.
What? Even I didn't know what I was going to ask. Still, like I say, I trust him. But oh help, old Iron-Boots' kick to the groin is really starting to make itself felt. Feels like somebody's tied the old boy up with tight wires. I'm going to have to stop, only that won't help, I need release. He's staring at me, his brow quirked.
'Napoleon? Are you all right?'
'What is it?'
'Guy booted me in the balls. It's, ah, not very comfortable.' His eyes narrow. He swings his leg back down, wincing as his ribs complain. Oh, we're a fine pair. What's he doing now? He's...
Soft lips on my thigh, hands pressing down on my hips. Light tongue licking my sore scrotum, now a gentle breath blowing across it, cooling it down and easing the tight, painful heat. Thank-you, my friend. God, but that's good. Uh, just realised, he's... Truly, I didn't expect this, really, I never thought... Illya, you're going to get a faceful in a minute, and I don't seem to have the breath to tell y-...
'Mmm?' Uh, I mean 'That was fabulous, thank-you...' It might not have come out all that clearly...
He's crawling back up my body, every move is stabbing pain through me, but I'm so relaxed now, I don't think it really matters any more. Illya, on the other hand... He's stabbing me in the thigh too, only that doesn't hurt, it just makes me so damned happy. I'd love to do something about that. Really should make the effort. It's only fair.
His lips are on mine. I'm kissing him; trying to, anyway.
'Napoleon!' Hissed at me. I crack open an eyelid. He's leaning over me, bobbing up and down with the force of his breathing, spatter of semen like a trail of opaline jewels across his cheek, he looks so innocent. Hah! There's a laugh! Still, the idea is endearing.
'Are you going to help?' He's laughing at me, at my complete, boneless contentment. I sit up, gasping with the pain. God, how I wish I was really fit for this. That he was, too—that heavy breathing is much shallower than it should be. I take hold of his erection, roll that rosy, weeping head between my fingers, and he throws back his head, shaking his hair off his forehead, leaning toward me, pressing his chest to mine.
'That makes this kinda awkward, Illya...' He shakes his head, and I don't care that it's playing havoc with all the injuries that had been starting to heal. I stroke him just the way I like, and it seems to suit him, his arm's round my back again, pulling me tight, and he comes in my hand and I hold on to him, and his gaping mouth sucking all the oxygen he can get out of the air slowly twitches into a smile and he presses his smile against my lips and we hold onto each other, which is all either of us had really intended anyway, but I'm not complaining about the rest of it, because that was.... And will be.
My arm ached like hell the next morning, I'd have to hide that from Mr Waverly, or I'd have ended up on paperwork for a month. Illya was walking a bit strangely too, like he was trying not to use his upper body at all. We were walking in to work, since it was a nice morning and we could both use the fresh air. His hand brushed mine irregularly as we walked, just the way it always does.
We arrived at Del Floria's and he followed me in through the door. We headed for the cubicle, gained entry to the reception area and waited for our badges. I thanked the lovely Janet as she took her time slotting the badge over my pocket, took the time to toss her a quick wink, then waited the second or two it took her to slap Illya's badge onto his jacket. If she only knew...
'Mr Waverly would like to see both of you right away,' she said as she released Illya.
'Thank-you,' I replied. Illya and I fell into step down the grey corridors leading to Waverly's office. We stopped outside and I buffed my shoes on the back of my legs. Illya waited for me, and I glanced across and brushed some imaginary dirt off his shoulder. He shot me one of those shy-amused smiles that I've always loved to see, yet hardly ever get to witness. I wonder if I'm going to get a few more of those now?
Illya followed me into Mr Waverly's office, where I took a chair and he stood just behind me, as he often does.
'Well gentlemen, neither of you are supposed to be in for work today. I see you have been signed off for the week, Mr Solo.'
'However, far be it from me to stop you if you want to write your reports.'
My back and shoulders are starting to ache. I can't really sit down like this yet. I'm going to have to write my report standing up. But Illya has moved close behind me, laying a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it, kneading away the discomfort. I pretend to ignore it, but my body is burning with it. Mr Waverly looks at me, then at Illya.
'As I said, Mr Solo, I did not expect you to succeed. I commend your obvious...application to the task.'
His gaze falls to the hand on my shoulder and his eyes narrow slightly, though for what reason, I could not say.
'I want those reports by lunchtime, then you will both go home and take the rest of the week to recover. I don't want you making yourselves worse. It's bad enough having you wandering in and out of Medical as if you know better, upsetting the doctors. It wouldn't do to prove them right, would it? They'd become insufferably cocky.'
I'm dumbfounded. Did he just say what I heard? Just sometimes, he throws you a blind-sider and you remember that he was a field agent once. I wonder if he had an Illya to cling to when things got hairy?
'Go on then. By lunchtime if you please.'
We leave Waverly's office and off we go to grumble our way through the writing of our reports, hands swinging by our sides, brushing occasionally, just as they always have.