Love sought is good, but love unsought is better.
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
The plywood creaked beneath his feet and Yancy Putnam cast a look over his shoulder. Common sense told him that he was the only one left in the theater, but he couldn't quite shake the feeling that he was being watched. His report to HQ had stressed that, but there was something else here, something that put every nerve that the UNCLE agent owned on edge. He couldn't just contact the office and say he suspected ghosts. The body count was too high for that now.
The smell of burning dust mingled with the staleness of the surrounding air and he negotiated his way between stools, lights, gel frames, and the usual assortment of trash that littered the floors of the catwalks. The air up here was so dry, it felt brittle against his skin. He licked his lips and gathered his courage.
With a cautionary look left and right, Putnam hefted himself over the side rail of the catwalk onto a short, jury-rigged ladder and climbed down to the lower catwalk. Pieces of plywood were sprawled across open steel beams, permitting the experienced tech safe passage to lighting equipment rendered otherwise inaccessible. Someone not familiar with the layout could take a wrong step and end up on the floor of the auditorium. Putnam had promised the lighting designer he'd replace the malfunctioning light as an excuse to remain behind in the theater and his cover demanded that he make good his word. It also gave Putnam a safe spot to make a report. No one could approach him here without early detection.
He moved across one sheet of plywood and settled himself on the metal support beam. His ears concentrating for a hint of footfall against wood, Putnam pulled his communicator from his pants pocket.
"Open Channel F please. Putnam here."
"Channel F is open," responded the tube and the agent smiled as he recognized the voice of his partner. "Hi, Yancy, how's the world of theater?"
"Exhausting. Any time the Old Man wants to upgrade the stress training at the Survival School, he should recommend checking out tech work. I've had six hours of sleep in the last three days."
"Sounds dangerous. What do you have for me?"
"I said previously that there's definite THRUSH here. Their droppings were all over the place, but I was wrong." The hair on the back of his neck rose slightly. "Hang on a minute." He stood up, holding a steel pole for support and studied the area around him. The theater beneath his feet slept restlessly, as if weary of its old role and ready for something new.
"Yancy, what's wrong?"
"Nothing...I feel funny...like I'm being watched."
"Any chance of it?"
"Not from where I'm standing. I'm about sixty feet above the audience seating on a catwalk that's only accessible by one ladder that I'm currently looking at. I can see everything around me and there's nothing here. Maybe it's the ghost."
"You sound as if you're trying to convince yourself."
"I am. There's this weird feeling here, JayJay. It's like you're never alone even when you know you are."
"Now it sounds like nerves. I recommend about ten hours of sleep."
"Sleep, what's that then?" Putnam felt himself relaxing at the lightness of his partner's voice.
"It's nice, it's just like sex only you do it alone and with your eyes closed."
"I've heard you can do that with your eyes closed too...it would be nice to have you here."
"I'd love to be there. Now what do you have to report?"
"It looks like THRUSH is not...there it is again." He rubbed at the back of his neck to try to release the tension. "I'm not alone here, JayJay. I can feel it."
"But you said..."
"Forget what I said." His breath was coming faster as the flesh beneath his scalp tightened. A shadow detached itself from the others and took a step away. "I'd like backup sent in please. And as quickly as possible."
"You're jumping the gun, aren't you? Yancy?" The tinny voice issuing from the now-discarded communicator echoed in the empty theater. "Yancy? Agent Putnam, report! Yancy?" The communicator was twisted shut abruptly, the fragile antennae snapped in the process, but Yancy Putnam was beyond caring at that point.
From his vantage point, lying draped over the back of the theater seats, his spine snapped in two, he could barely make out the figure as it stood on the edge of catwalks sixty feet above his head. Ironically, his last thought was to wonder how long it would take to get his blood out of the upholstery of the seats.
Napoleon Solo was having a wonderful dream, an armful of luscious blond kinda dream. The body in his arm twisted and moaned and sent fireworks shooting from his toes to the top of his head. It was so good, so perfect. He twisted his fingers into the hair and tipped the head to abruptly stare into the sloe-eyes of his partner.
Napoleon sat up with a gasp. The phone suddenly rang and his bleary eyes tried to focus on the bedside clock even as his hand was reaching for the jangling instrument.
"Five minutes more, I beg you, whoever this is. I'll make it up to you," he mumbled into the receiver.
"If only you were good for it, I might take you up on it, but I've seen your credit statement." Napoleon's eyes widened as his penis twitched happily at the sound of his partner's voice
"Um, Illya...Hi." He resisted the impulse to cross his legs and hide his erection. It wasn't like the Russian could see him through the lines
"Good morning, Napoleon. What's up?" Oh if you only knew, Napoleon thought as Illya's voice continued. "I'm sorry to have to wake you, but Waverly wants us in his office and, for some reason, everyone here seems to think you will respond better to me asking than them."
"Don't get me wrong, Illya, but what are you doing in New York? Last I heard you were in South America."
"In route to Pakistan via New York. Larson took out the Caracas office and headed off to greener pastures. I headed the cleanup and had to drop paperwork off here. Don't worry, Napoleon, I'll take the bastard out for you."
It was as if the Russian could see Napoleon's hand snaking up to his still healing shoulder wound and gentle massaging the area. The bullet wound was now just an angry red splotch, but it still ached and Napoleon could still see Larson's face, the triumph on it as he unloaded his weapon at Napoleon. It had only been an abrupt twist that had sent the bullet into his shoulder instead of his heart, only the quick thinking and medical care his partner provided had kept him from bleeding to death. No one wanted Larson more than he did...well, with the exception of Illya. The Russian had made the THRUSH leader his focus ever since Larson's attempt on his partner.
Napoleon felt envious. His partner was out there, fighting the good fight and here he was, lying in bed having dirty thoughts about said partner.
"I'm sorry, Illya, you were saying?"
"You here, Waverly's office. What's the matter with you?"
"Still waking up, sorry. I'll be there in half an hour." Napoleon cradled the phone and threw back the sheets. And there was still the matter of his hard on to take care of. Walk into HQ with that unattended and every woman would be his friend. And right now, that just didn't appeal to him as much as it used to. Gradually over the course of the last few months, Napoleon had found his thoughts taking on a very different path.
With considerably more exterior polish than he felt inwardly, Napoleon Solo walked the familiar route to Alexander Waverly's office. There was time for one fast inspection of his jacket lapels for anything offensive to his fashion sense and he stepped through the door.
It wasn't surprising that Kuryakin was already in place at the circular table, reading glasses perched on his nose, engrossed in an open file folder in his hands. The blue eyes flicked up once, and then immediately returned to the report. It was obvious, from his barely contained energy, that the agent was ready to make fast work of this meeting and be on his way. Once the Russian got his teeth into something, he was slow to let go. He'd been on Larson's trail for a month now, every since Napoleon had gotten sidelined by the THRUSH.
Solo admired and appreciated that tenacity, even when it did result in less-than-pleasant consequences such as now. Blond hair fell over a fresh bruise on his forehead and there were still raw rope burns apparent on the Russian's wrists. Dark circles under the agent's eyes told Solo that Illya had been going without sleep as well.
Stranger though was that his partner sat as if someone had inserted a rod down his back. As Napoleon walked to his usual space, he placed a hand on Illya's shoulder and felt the unmistakable padding of bandages there. As he squeezed gently, he saw pain flick across Illya's face before he hid it. Something told Napoleon that Illya's sitting position had less to do with a concern for correct posture and more to do with pain. Napoleon made a mental note to wander down to Medical after this and check in.
He slid into the unrelenting plastic of the office chair and then studied the third agent across from his partner. It took him a moment to place the man, but he finally decided that it was Jay Longley, a field agent from California. The man looked like he'd been to hell and hadn't quite made it back yet. There were black smears beneath Longley's eyes and it looked as if he hadn't changed clothes or showered recently. There was an air of depression and sorrow that clung to him like second hand smoke.
"Ah, Mr. Solo, I take it that the cross town traffic was especially heavy this morning." Waverly's voice was chastising and Solo felt just the smallest twinge of guilt. Waverly worked that way.
"Yes, sir, there was an accident on Forty-second..." Napoleon started tentatively and his partner shook his head and smiled faintly, but never pulled his concentration from the file. Napoleon dropped his gaze down to the table, trying to look chagrinned. Instead, his eyes almost instantly focused upon Illya's hand as they held the file. Broad, strong hands, with nimble fingers, Napoleon wondered what sort of magic those hands could perform in a more intimate setting... He caught himself before the thought could travel any further. The last thing he needed was an incident in Waverly's office.
"I expected as much." Waverly cut him off and gestured to a video screen. A photograph, more of a mug shot than anything else, replaced the gray void. "Do you recognize him?"
Illya flicked his gaze up over the top of his glasses and then back down. Solo could see now that it was a dossier on Larson that his partner studied, not one referring to the man on the screen. "Yancy Putnam," Illya said, after it became clear Napoleon wasn't going to speak up. "I remember him from a surveillance class I taught last year. He's a quick learner, but impatient and eager to react for the wrong reasons. I recommended him for reclassification to Section 3, pending a further investigation into his psych profile."
"Now gentlemen, if you will turn your attention to the speakers," Waverly's voice ordered and Illya reluctantly closed the file to refocus his attention.
There was a slight 'pop' as the speakers sprang to life and a voice filled the room.
"Sounds dangerous. What do you have for us?"
"I said... A crackle of static interrupted the conversation. "There's definite THRUSH here. Their droppings" Another pop "...all over the place...Hang on a minute"
"Yancy, what's wrong?" The man who sat across from them slumped in his seat at the sound and his face grayed.
"Nothing...I feel funny...like I'm being watched."
"Any chance of it?"
"Not where I'm standing. I'm about sixty feet above the audience seating on a catwalk that only accessible by one ladder that I'm looking at. I can see everything around me and there's nothing here. Maybe it's the ghost."
"You sound like you're trying to convince yourself."
"There's this weird feeling here, Jay. It's like you're never alone even when you know you are."
A sudden burst of static made Solo jump slightly, but no one seemed to notice. Illya's head had dropped, but Solo knew that, in spite of appearances, he wasn't asleep.
"It looks like THRUSH is..." Another burst of static smothered his voice. "...it is again. I'm not alone here, Jay."
"But you said..."
"Forget what I said. I'd like backup sent in please as quickly as possible."
"You're jumping the gun, Yancy. Yancy? Agent Putnam, report! Yancy?" The speaker fell into silence and Agent Longley dropped his head, breathing deeply.
"And that was his last communiqué to you?" Illya asked the question softly, but with the incisiveness that he was famous for.
The response was mumbled, but brittle as if the voice would shatter at any moment. This was a man on the verge of collapse. "I tried to contact him for the next hour and we'd already commenced a rescue mission, but by the time we got there, I was notified of his death by the local police."
"Excuse me, why were you notified and not the UNCLE operative in charge?" Kuryakin asked. He lifted his head and took off his glasses to study the agent closely.
"I'm listed as his next of kin on his contact sheet at the theater. They called me from there."
"I know this is painful, Agent Longley." Waverly's voice was kind, but definite. "But exactly what did the police say had happened?"
The agent drew a long shuddering breath and spoke, his voice definite. "Agent Putnam had fallen from a height of sixty-seven feet. He was killed almost...almost instantly." The voice cracked and the California agent looked away. "I'm sorry. We've been partners for a long time." He looked back at Solo with water brimming, red-rimmed eyes before switching his attention to Kuryakin. "You two understand."
Solo looked over at his own partner with a knowing expression. He did know the pain and agony that the agent was suffering through. Anyone who had been partnered for a long time knew the terror of losing a partner. The only thing worse was when that partner was missing. Then the element of not knowing came into play. Both he and Kuryakin had suffered through that horror more than once.
"Why was Agent Putnam at the theater?" Illya asked, stowing away his glasses in his jacket pocket.
"When we were reassigned to the Central Valley, Yancy had been doing some work with a local theater group. They were looking for some technicians, so he volunteered. He'd been in the theater in college and really missed it. He said it kept him off the streets at night. Then a bunch of weird stuff started to happen and Yancy thought it might have some connection with a local THRUSH group two towns over—like they were getting ready to pull up shop and hightail it over there. Try to lose us."
"And there was no hint as to how he fell?" Waverly again.
"No, sir, the police think he jumped. Considering his mention of THRUSH involvement, I doubt it. I've known Yancy way too long to even consider suicide. He loved his career, the theater, everything. He was not suicidal. And you heard his last communiqué. It didn't sound suicidal. Maybe a little paranoid, yes, but he was not suicidal. I'd know...more than anyone else. I'd know."
It suddenly occurred to Solo that perhaps there was a bit more going on than the usual mourning for a fallen partner and colleague. He'd always known the rumors about the two, but they were the same ones that dogged himself and Illya. The rumors had been around for awhile, but neither had paid any mind to them. Except now Napoleon was starting to have moments that were both disquieting and exciting. Like when his eyes would drop to study the naked form of his partner in the shower, lingering over his groin, wondering what it would feel like. Stop! Napoleon screamed at himself. My God, what was wrong with me these days?
For his part, Illya was all business. "And that comment about the ghost?" Illya was asking.
"Yancy had a pretty good imagination and the other techs exploited it to no end. Yancy got to a point that he wouldn't even go down into the dimmer room alone because the ghost was supposed to have met his demise outside the door. I told him that ghosts weren't the ones to be afraid of, it's only the living that hurt you."
"Any chance that he could have similarly imagined a connection with THRUSH?" Solo picked up the report that lay previously ignored before him. "It would seem rather odd that THRUSH would pick a small town in California to practice its world domination ploys."
"Look at his record, Solo." Longley snapped. "When it came to THRUSH, Yancy stood with the best, including you and Mr. Kuryakin. It wasn't his fault that he was pulled from active fieldwork. " Longley glared at Illya, but the blond's attention had returned to the file in his hands. Napoleon knew Illya couldn't be threatened or browbeaten by a fellow agent. If the man was reassigned, it would have been for good reason.
"I wasn't questioning his ability, Agent Longley," Solo said, his voice velvet smooth with concern and sympathy. "He was a good man and UNCLE has lost a competent and skilled agent. It's just that," Napoleon stopped to consult a sheet of paper, "New Waylons is hardly the spot for a THRUSH satrapy. I have to be sure before I send someone in and I need to know that there's something there to go in for—for both UNCLEs and Mr. Putnam's sake."
"Not just anyone, Mr. Solo," Waverly interrupted. "I think this is a job best handled by you and Mr. Kuryakin."
"Sir?" Illya was suddenly all attention. It was obvious that Waverly's comment had caught him completely off guard. "Larson is on the move. I have to..."
"Mr. Kuryakin!" Waverly's voice was sharp and the Russian immediately fell silent. "You are off your current assignment. Do you think I have not had the opportunity to go over the doctor's reports from Caracas? You are not fit for field duty in Dr. Guiterrez's and Dr. Fortner's opinions."
Was it Napoleon's imagination that made him see a glimmer of satisfaction in Longley's eyes? He began to hate the man just a little.
"My injuries were minimal, sir. I assure you that I am capable..."
"Mr. Kuryakin, the only thing you will be capable of is a month in Medical if you persist in this line of insubordination. You are either getting careless or sloppy and neither is acceptable. As of this moment, you are off that assignment and on this one. Do you understand me, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Solo knew when the Old Man used that tone there was no wiggle room left. If Illya tried to pursue Larson now, it would end very badly for him.
"Yes, sir." It was acutely apparent that Illya neither agreed nor appreciated Waverly's decision, but he knew he had no real option.
"Mr. Solo, you are still on medical leave for another week and light duty after that, pending a review by Medical. Am I correct?"
"Yes, sir." Napoleon knew when to pick his battles and he played complacent.
"Mr. Solo, unless I am mistaken, you have had some theatrical training."
"Yes, but that was back in college."
The look Waverly gave him told Solo that UNCLE's chief knew exactly when it was. "Your forte was Shakespeare."
"Stress upon the 'was'," Illya muttered softly so that only Solo could hear him. The dark-haired agent considered a snappy comeback, but contented himself with watching the Russian fume and answering Waverly instead.
"You and Mr. Kuryakin will proceed to New Waylons and take up where Agent Putnam left off. Agent Longley, you are to let these men do their job and not interfere. Mr. Kuryakin. Mr. Slade will be taking over your assignment. You will brief him. You will take Mr. Putnam's place. With Mr. Solo to watch your back and you to watch his, perhaps we shall obtain some badly needed answers in this unnecessary death without the cost of additional field agents. There's one more thing, gentlemen—as to the matter of your cover story."
Illya Kuryakin banked into the curve a little harder than necessary and sent Napoleon slamming into the passenger door of the sedan.
"Do you mind, Mr. Kuryakin?" Napoleon's head came up with a snap and he glared over at his partner.
"Ah, the great actor finally deigns to speak to the lowly tech."
"Napoleon, you haven't said five words to me since we boarded the plane in New York."
Napoleon closed the thin paperback he'd been studying and sighed. The blond's hair danced in the wind from the open window and Napoleon yearned to pat it back into place. He shook his head to clear the thought. "I'm sorry, Illya, but it's been a long time since I've done any acting."
"Nonsense, we act every day. Our lives depend upon it."
"That's a different sort of acting, Illya. I need to make these people believe that I've been doing professional acting for years. Even though the producing director is partially aware of real purpose here, I still need to do it well enough to carry it off. Besides, you were pretty cut off yourself. Still upset about Larson?"
"He nearly killed you, Napoleon and took out half of the South American UNCLE with you. How am I supposed to feel? I was so close. It's wrong that someone else should have the satisfaction of taking him down."
"I read your medical reports Illya. What did you expect Waverly to do?"
"To let me do my job, the one I am trained for. I feel like I'm being punished for being a good agent. That son of a bitch needs to fry and I was so close I could taste him." Illya was gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white.
"It's the Old Man's call, Illya, and you know that." Napoleon returned to his book and Illya drummed his fingers against the steering wheel. Napoleon knew he'd been distant over the past few days and Illya was picking up on it.
Another curve, but Illya slowed for this one. "What else is wrong, Napoleon?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know you, my friend and you seem, I don't know, self-conscious, distracted or something. What's going on in here?" Illya tapped his own head and hazarded a fast glance over at his partner before returning his attention to the twisty road.
Napoleon dropped the book down into his lap and looked out the window as the dry, yellowed hills of California flew by before mumbling something.
"What, Napoleon? I didn't hear you."
"If you must know, our cover story is bothering me." Solo's tone was tight. It wasn't that he minded certain aspects of their situation. Being sent in as a gay couple was almost an answer to his prayers. The thought of getting physical with the man shot straight to his groin, but he didn't know how Illya felt about it. The man was pretty tight lipped about his own assignations, although Napoleon knew Illya was sexually active, just not sexually active with him. He'd seen the evidence in the locker room and the shower.
"Well, if nothing else, at least I won't have to worry about digging you out from a pile of women this time."
"Just men. There's a reassuring thought."
"Napoleon, surely your reputation can take one hit. It isn't like this rumor hasn't been following us for years. Just consider it more grist for the mill. You, if anyone, should be secure enough with your sexuality to make this no more than an inconvenience. There will be talk, but there's been talk before, there will be talk in the future. We know how we stand."
But did he? Even Napoleon wasn't so sure these days. It had been years since another man had caught his eye and yet... "What about you? You've got as much to lose as me. Seriously, Illya, wouldn't it bother you to have people looking at you like that?"
"People are as they are, Napoleon. I do not lose sleep over people feeling the need to conjecture over my sex life. If that is all they have to talk about, they have very dull lives indeed." Illya slowed for a stop sign. "I trust you. We've been though a lot together and if narrow minded people cannot see where one aspect of our partnership ends and another begins, so be it. We will come out of this just fine, Napoleon," Illya said, with a tight smile. "And if not we can always chose a china pattern." The book hit him and he chuckled. "Further abuse of your driver will result in the passenger being locked in the trunk."
"And as trivial as this might seem, my ear really hurts," Napoleon said, reaching up to gently massage a pierced earlobe. "It's worse than getting shot, in my opinion. Why do women do this to themselves? Considering the only parts we're usually interested in are from the neck down and the knees up."
"Ah vanity, it goes by many names. At least you only got one and only in one ear." This was true. Both of Illya's ears sported a variety of earrings. The night after his piercings were done, Napoleon knew, Illya had been up for hours holding ice to them. Now they were pretty well healed, but it had been enough for Solo to put it off until the last minute. Now he was paying the price. "I drew the line at the nipple rings though."
Napoleon winced at the thought and his hand went automatically to his chest. "Wise decision."
"Still, I can't believe that that's what is troubling you, Napoleon. I've known long enough to know that a little physical discomfort isn't a problem for you. So what else?"
"You said it yourself back in Waverly's office, why would THRUSH set up shop in this town? It makes no sense."
"According to our file, New Waylons is made up of mostly scientists and engineers. Longley says the average IQ here is one ninety. There are lots of very intellectual people doing very intellectual research and development. That sounds like possible birdseed for THRUSH. How many people know who we really are?"
"As far as I know, only the producing director, a Mr. Douglas Piedmont, and only up to a point. Waverly seemed to feel he could be trusted and if the Old Man trusts him, then I am not going to doubt Piedmont until he gives me reason otherwise. Nor am I going to trust him until he gives me reason to."
Illya braked suddenly as a sign announced the approach of the town and a speed limit well below his current speed.
"What street is this theater on?"
"Huston. Nice town," Solo allowed as the car picked its way through the tree-lined street. "Quiet though."
"Most of the inhabitants work in the valley, either at one of the research facilities or at the university, and live here. Lots of career couples, not many kids yet. I'm not even sure if there are any schools here. From what Longley tells me, most of the kids are shipped out to neighboring areas."
"No schools, but they have a theater?"
"And it's pretty advanced from what I understand. Napoleon, what's our cross street?"
"Prince. You were saying?"
"The more advanced the mind, the more the need for the simplicity of play."
"That's very philosophical, Illya, I didn't know you had it in you."
"I don't, it's a quote from a TV show. Anyhow, these people need something to do with their spare time. Something that is challenging, but manageable."
"So they built a theater?"
"They putter around with the small stuff, hire the necessary staff to run it and just have fun playing around. Here, we are, Huston Street."
"Turn right. From what I understand, there's nothing second best in this place and maybe that's what has me a bit concerned as well. Why bring in two outsiders? Especially one hasn't had any experience in the theater and the other no experience for nearly twenty years. That makes no sense. The monetary offer they made for you was incredible. "
"I imagine that our resumes say otherwise. There's the theater." Illya guided the car into the dirt lot and parked beside the cars already present. "Are you ready?"
"Not entirely, but that's never stopped me before." Napoleon brought a hand up to run over his hair and sighed. "I feel like a nervous bride groom."
"Nonsense, Napoleon, this is much more frightening than first time sex. Not to worry though, I'll be gentle." Illya gave him a wink before climbing out of the car.
The research department had advised them on the proper clothes. The temperature had to be close to a hundred and Illya's black tee shirt and equally black jeans gleaned additional warmth from the sun. A bead of sweat trickled down Illya's face and he wiped it away. "It's hot."
Napoleon was a bit more comfortable in a polo shirt and poplin slacks, but he agreed with his partner. It was hot, almost too hot to breathe, and that was all the more reason for them to get inside. Illya headed for the lobby doors, pausing as Napoleon's softly cleared throat stopped him.
"Illya, we're hired help. We go in the back." Solo pointed to an alley. Down a short distance was a door with 'stage entrance' painted above it. A paint can, partially filled with sand, overflowed with cigarette butts and the nearby trashcan was filled with junk food wrappers and soda cans. "Hmm, wonder if they are what they eat." Out of habit, Napoleon glanced down at his watch, a twin to the one his partner sported. He wished for a quick death when he'd read the backs of them, but again Research insisted. He was beginning to believe that Research was having way too much fun with this assignment.
"We'll know soon enough." Illya headed for that door, slamming to a stop at the dark hallway before him. He pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them into his back pocket. Napoleon leaned over to remove the glasses and instead stuck one stem down the front of the Russian's shirt instead. At the questioning look he received, Napoleon nodded.
"It's my only weakness." Voices echoed eerily back from the end of the hall and the Russian studied his partner for a moment before speaking.
Napoleon took the lead and moved down the hallway with his usual mixture of grace and self-assuredness, not a hint of self -doubt or worry. No one would question his confidence based solely upon the way he moved. He knew that more than one situation had been assuaged simply by how he carried himself.
As they approach the group of five people, all lounging on mismatched furniture watched their approach silently.
"Okay, Justin, I want all the lights patched and cabled today—not tomorrow, not the day after—today." A sandy-haired man was reading aloud from a clip board. "Heather, that backdrop needs to be done and ready to go by Wednesday. We can't focus the rest of the lights until it's hung. Damien..." He trailed off when he realized no one was paying attention and he glanced over to see what had fascinated his fellow techs.
They were nearly all similarly dressed as Illya, but with splashes of color and snide comments upon their tee shirts. There was a sense of ennui about them as they regarded the new arrivals.
"Excuse me, could you point me in the direction of Mr. Piedmont's office?" Napoleon's voice was velvet smooth, cool and cultured. He was a man in control and confidence surrounded him like a cape.
"Mr. Piedmont?" a raven-and-green-haired woman asked. "You must be the new guys. No one around here calls Pieddy mister anything. I'm Heather and this is Justin, Ralph, Hojo, and Damien." Each raised a hand in turn and Illya noted that three of the four wore their sunglasses in a similar fashion to his. "And that's..."
"Paul Tesca." The man offered a hand to Solo and stood. He towered over them both, but Solo accepted the tattooed hand and shook it firmly. Each of the other techs were also tattooed and/or piercings similar to his partner. Apparently Research had known what they were talking about.
"Napoleon Solo," he said, turning automatically to the Russian. "And this is my partner, Illya."
Looks rippled through the group as Solo belatedly realized what he said. He waited for a negative reaction, but Heather simply stuck out a hand toward the blond.
"Kuryakin, but just Illya will be fine." Illya accepted the hand, surprised by the strength he felt in it. He brought it to his lips and brushed a kiss across the paint-stained fingers. Heather looked as though she had died and gone to heaven and she struggled to form her next sentence.
"Do you prefer Illya or Just?" she asked and then, obviously recovering her self-control, she affected a bad John Wayne imitation. "I see by your clothes, Mr. Just, that you are a technician." Most of the others snickered at her comment. "You know what they say, 'when you go black, you never go back.' Welcome to the Fiver. It's not much, but it's home."
"Mr. Tesca, I noticed your loft from outside. What kind of fly system do you run?" Tesca tossed the clipboard down onto a scarred and paint-stained table as he sat back down. Only the quick action of Justin's foot kept it from sliding off the table entirely.
"It's a single purchase, loads on the top or bottom. Fly gallery is four stories up."
"How many battens?"
"Twenty-seven including three electrics and a light bridge. Thought we hired you as an assistant master electrician though. You work flies?"
"Among other things."
Paul reached over and grabbed the Russian's forearm, squeezing the thickly corded arm hard. Usually Illya would shy from physical contact. This he allowed after exchanging a brief reassuring glance to Napoleon. Research had also warned them that theater people tended to be a bit more tactile than most people. "You're a fly man all right or a power lifter. Wonderful, we really need someone who understands flies." He flipped the Russian's arm over and glanced down at the tattooed Chinese characters temporarily painted there.
"What's it say?"
"Strength, truth, freedom, and love." Illya indicated each symbol in turn. "Usually you read down to up, but this is for my benefit, no one else's."
"You should see where he has 'seize the day' tattooed," Solo quipped and Illya glared at him.
Tesca laughed and shook his head. "Somehow, I'm sensing a TMI moment. Set construction is pretty much done, but how are you at rigging?"
"Competent and, yes, I also hold a Masters in electrical engineering. I was hired as an assistant ME, but I will accept any assignment."
"Wonderful, fabulous, I sense you are going to save our butts from considerable stress." The man seemed sincere enough in his praise. "After you check in with Pieddy, come and find me. I'll probably still be here or in the theater or in there." He nodded to a door marked 'scene shop'. "Pieddy's office is down the hall and up one flight. It's the only door that's marked on the second floor. Everything else is costume storage."
"Thank you. It was nice meeting all of you," Napoleon said and started to walk away. "Coming, Mr. Wonderful?" He tossed over his shoulder. "Maybe we should get you a new tattoo. I know exactly where I'd put that one." There were snickers from the group and Napoleon knew the other were champing at the bit to gossip, but were waiting for them to get out of earshot.
Or not as he heard Heather mutter, "Look at that ass. Why are the cute ones always on the other bus?" Since his slacks were loose and Illya's jeans were form fitting, a fact that was making Napoleon just a bit crazy, he knew to whose ass the comment was directed. He let the comment pass and instead used the time to study his surroundings and get a feeling for the place. He followed his partner up the flight of stairs, his eyes scanning the bulletin boards that lined the stairwell. There were sheets announcing upcoming productions, lost and found items, cartoons, jokes, parties, the usual assort of work-related documents, but nothing of any consequence. They reached the landing and entered another long hallway. Illya tapped once at the pre-described door and entered at a shouted invitation.
"Mr. Piedmont?" Napoleon asked automatically of the man sitting at the desk. For his part, the red-haired man nodded and held up a hand. Then he gestured to a pair of chairs, his attention still focused upon the speaker on the other end of the telephone.
"I can assure you that all will be done to get the show up on time, Doug. I'm not in the habit of failing my board members. Yes, I know there's been a lot of bad press about the play, but that's not the play's fault. It's a good show. We'll just have to be careful how we market it. Our new hires are here, so I gotta go. You take care. Love to Marty. Bye." He cradled the phone and shook his head. "You would think that in California, people wouldn't worry about a little full frontal nudity, but the lawyers for Equus will sue if you don't use it and our board members will vapor lock if we do. You must be Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin." He held out his hand to each in turn. "Mr. Waverly told me you were coming and I assured him that we would do everything we could to help in your investigation of Yancy's death. We took it all pretty hard, especially Damien. He and Yancy were really close. He was well liked...by the crew at least." Piedmont sat and reached for a sheath of papers. "Of course, I can't let you into the company on just good looks and personality alone. You both come with pretty impressive resumes. Mr. Solo, would you care to give me a little sample?"
"Napoleon, please, and I'd be happy to. Anything in particular?"
There was a flash of panic in his partner's eyes but Napoleon merely nodded and stood. He walked a few feet from the pair and lowered his head. He took a few breaths and closed his eyes in concentration. When his head came up, the hazel brown eyes had a distant and disturbing look to them, as if he hovered just on the borderline of a nervous breakdown.
"To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..." He tried to make each word carry a burden, allowing the listener to guess at the pain and torment carried within the heart of the young Dane. Just as Illya took his refuge in music, Napoleon found his in theater.
"Nicely rendered, Mr. Solo," Piedmont said, applauding as the agent came to an end.
"Hamlet is one of my favorites—insanity, death, deceit at every turn. What's not to love?"
"How are you with his comedies?"
"Any one is particular?"
Napoleon nodded once more and drew a breath. Again his face changed, to that of a younger, more roguish man. "That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks. But that I will hang my bugle in an invisible baldric, all women shall pardon me. I will live a bachelor."
"Perfect, except I have another part for you in mind—that of Don Pedro of Aragon. Can your ego bear that?"
"There are no bad roles in Shakespeare," Napoleon said as he returned to his seat. He sent a grin over to Illya—it would seem that they were both in the door.
"Well, it will be a change to work with an actor who isn't suffering from an over-abundance of ego." He tossed a script over to the dark-haired agent and Solo caught it easily. "And now to you, Mr. Kuryakin, what about you?"
"What about me?"
"Do any acting?"
Illya snorted and shook his head. "That's Napoleon's job, not mine. One of us has to pay the bills and put food on the table."
"Mr. Waverly warned me that you were a pessimist."
"I prefer realist."
"You should fit in just fine around here." Piedmont started to rise. "I'll introduce you to Paul Tesca and the gang"
"Justin, Heather, Hojo, Ralph, and Damien—we've already met in the hallway. I know where to find him."
"Excellent, more time saved. Okay, Napoleon, call is seven tonight. Go study your lines. Mr. Kuryakin, you'll report to Paul now to see what he needs." Illya nodded and got to his feet, pausing at Piedmont's voice. "And I hope you're as good as your resume leads me to believe. I hate being disappointed."
"Better. If there's one thing you can depend upon, it's Illya," Napoleon answered easily, sparing his partner the effort. "He aims to please."
"Good. I went ahead and made reservations for you at the Sleepy Time Inn. What it lacks in name, it makes up for in convenience. It's only a few buildings down from the theater. They have a fairly good restaurant and their bar isn't bad either. I know I can count upon your discretion while you're with the company."
Illya stayed his hand in the action of reaching for the doorknob and looked back over his shoulder. "Excuse me, sir?"
"Mr. Waverly explained that you two have more than just a working relationship going on here. I don't have any problems with that and neither does most of the cast and crew, but just be careful. The town's pretty mellow, but this is not San Francisco, if you know what I mean. I wouldn't invite trouble. No PDAs, for example."
"PDAs?" Illya glanced over at Solo, who hunched his shoulders and shook his head.
"Public displays of affection. We have a hard enough time keeping our seats filled without some rabble-rousing busy body screaming about the sin of homosexuality."
"Not to worry, Mr. Piedmont," Napoleon answered easily, rising to follow his partner out. "We will be pictures of decorum."
"I'm counting on it, gentlemen."
Tesca hefted up a thirty foot length of cable and handed it to the Russian. "Take this up to Justin, will you? He needs to cable that par into circuit 213 to dimmer 7 and throw a R-51 into it. Got that?"
"Yes, sir," Illya answered with considerable more energy than he felt. He'd been up and down the ladder that connected the stage deck with the second story catwalks at least a dozen times today. His back and shoulders ached—a leftover of the time spent on Larson's rack. The doctors insisted that there was no permanent damage, but Illya would argue that point at the moment. His hands were blistered even through the gloves he wore and his head complained loudly about inadequate lighting and jet lag, but that was the easiest of his aches to ignore.
He draped the cable over a shoulder and headed for the ladder. This is what he deserved for thinking he was in shape.
"You're really something, you know that?" There was a slight edge to the technical director's voice that stopped Illya in his tracks.
"I'm afraid I don't understand, sir." He turned back, shouldering the cable into place as it started to slide back down his arm.
"You come in, fresh off the road and immediately start working. You haven't stopped, haven't asked when we're breaking, haven't even asked to pee. I can't get even my seasoned help to go up that ladder more than three times before they start complaining about being misused and you've been up and down it all day without a word of complaint. What are you?"
"A professional," Illya answered curtly and reached for the rung of the ladder.
Whatever the technical director's response, it was lost as Illya climbed up the metal ladder, his concentration solely upon the next rung. Once he made the second floor landing, he stopped and propped himself up against the wall. Despite what the technical director thought, Illya was tired, hungry and had to pee like a bull elephant. He was also frustrated. The one thing he wanted was to discuss Putnam and it was the only thing he hadn't been able to work into a conversation yet.
He straightened and carried the cable to the master electrician. Justin glanced over from his position on the light bridge. Carefully picking his way between instruments and electric cables, he walked to the landing, saving Illya the need to heft himself over the railing and out onto the catwalk.
"You need to cable that par into circuit 213 and drop in an R-51."
"Okay, go patch me in."
"Do you want a hot patch first?"
"Nah, let's live life dangerously, shall we? It's just a wash. Toss me that gel frame by your feet."
"It has a bastard amber in it," Illya protested. He'd been cutting that particular color gel for an hour and had it well drilled into his head now. "I think Mr. Tesca wants a surprise pink. I'll replace it."
"Yeah, well, this is Don Pedro's light and your beloved is going to be a helluva lot happier in a bastard." Abruptly, Justin broke off and his mouth dropped open, seemingly aware of his words for the first time.
"I can assure you that my parents were married before I was born," Illya commented, dryly. "And he's plenty happy now, thank you."
"Um, I didn't mean it that way."
Illya then smiled, not bothering to hide his amusement at the man's embarrassment. "I know."
He let the master electrician chew on that as he wearily retraced his steps back to the patch panel and stared at it until he found the correctly marked slider. Carefully, he moved it up to the line marked 7 and then turned from the panel. He leaned forward against the railing and rested his throbbing head against his forearms as he stared down at the stage floor below.
"Helluva first day, huh?"
Damien's voice broke through his thoughts and the blond nodded, pushing himself back off the cool metal of the rail. The tech dropped his handful of gel frames and safety cables on the landing's plate metal before reseating his baseball cap onto the mass of curly blond hair.
"I'm much better at night. And as much as it pains me to admit, I am not as young as I used to be. I swear every show will be my last, then Napoleon comes along with some song and dance and boom, I'm working my ass off and he's taking the bows."
"The words of a backstage warrior. Listen, we usually knock off about six so we aren't in the way of the actors when they rehearse. Why don't you join us for a few drinks? It'll give us a chance to get to know one another. Napoleon will be in rehearsal at least until eleven, possibly longer if he has a fitting tonight."
Illya's first reaction was to bow out, but he knew nothing unlocked someone's tongue like alcohol. It might be just the way to get some questions answered. "That would be great, but I need to grab a shower first. Can you give me about an hour?"
"Not a problem. I'll pick you up. You're at Sleepy Time?"
This nod was accompanied a look of distain. "I'm not sure of the room number yet."
"I'll ask at the front desk. Come on." Damien slapped the Russian's shoulder, ignorant of the wince it brought to the man's face. "We still need to gel those ETCs and tie up all that cabling before we can call it a day. Been meaning to tell you—great collection of earrings. I like the hammer and sickle one the best."
"Napoleon gave it to me for our fifth anniversary. I always wear it for good luck when we're on the road."
"What did you give him?"
"A reason to worry." With that and a crooked smile, Illya headed towards the catwalks.
Napoleon Solo glanced around the room, wondering what he'd forgotten. He had a pile of items on the end of the well-worn dresser, but he still felt like something was missing. No matter, he could always call Illya and have him bring it by. He glanced at his wristwatch, still half smiling at the sappy sentiment it carried beneath it. Illya had been chagrinned when reading the matching sentiment on his own watch and that made Napoleon smile even more.
Napoleon draped a tie around his neck and started to button up his shirt when the door opened. Reflexively he reached for his gun, belatedly remembering that he'd locked it safely away in his suitcase, and then relaxed at the sound of his partner's voice.
"Hello, Napoleon, did you have a good day?" Illya brushed past him, moving towards the bathroom, stripping off his shirt as he went. There was the distinct sound of urination and a loud sigh of satisfaction. Oh I know that feeling, Napoleon thought as he picked up Illya's shirt and tossed it over onto his suitcase.
"I got a lay of the land and caught some sack time. What happened to you?" Solo asked over the sound of flushing water. "I sort of lost track of you after we left Piedmont's office."
"Unlike you, I was earning a living and I'm convinced that UNCLE isn't paying me enough." The shower drowned out his partner's voice at that point and Napoleon smiled.
"Well, I have always maintained that I am the brains and the good looks of this outfit," he said to his reflection and then he cracked open the bathroom door, waving his hand at the gush of steam that escaped. "What are your plans for tonight?" he shouted in.
"I am going out drinking with the rest of the technicians with the hopes of getting some information regarding Putnam."
"Yes, you are keeping your nose to the grind stone. I'll be thinking about you while I'm earning my living."
"Oh, didn't they tell you? I get paid, you don't. On top of everything else, you're a kept man, Napoleon."
"That's a relief," Napoleon said, chuckling. He watched his partner's silhouette against the shower curtain, his nerves humming like a live wire as Illya's hand dropped to soap his genitals. Napoleon ached to offer his services, but that might just result in a right cross. Instead, he dropped his eyes to study the chipped and worn linoleum on the bathroom floor. "At least we know whose expense account this will be coming out of. I went by Putnam's old apartment this afternoon, but it was already rented out. Landlord said he was quiet, paid his rent on time and wasn't given to having wild parties. I'll see at the theater if any of the actresses know anything."
"Remember your cover, Napoleon. Besides, Putnam was gay, it would be better if you check out the actors instead."
"And risk the wrath of your jealousy? Perish the thought! I know how you get. Besides, Research told me that women tend to be much more open with gay men because they don't see them as a threat and more of an equal."
Illya pushed back the shower curtain and reached for a towel. "Better yet, see if your intuition can pick up anything at the theater because I'm coming up with a big fat zero." He stepped out of the tub, unconcerned about appearing naked in front of his partner. He'd long since lost any semblance of modesty between them. After a brisk rub at his arms and torso, he wrapped the towel around his waist and reached for a second towel for his hair, his movements stiff. He reached for his kit and pulled out a bottle of painkillers. Napoleon knew from experience that three would drop an elephant in its tracks and he watched Illya dry swallow two.
"Maybe THRUSH has pulled out by now. It wouldn't be the first time they high tailed it at the first sign of trouble." Illya's pants were in a heap by the toilet and Napoleon shook his head. "Are you this much of a slob at home?"
"Who knows? I'm never there long enough to find out."
Illya's movements were carefully measured as if that alone was affording him some relief from the day's toil. Napoleon tossed the retrieved pants to Illya, watching one arm barely make it up in time to grab them. They were immediately dropped onto the bed. Napoleon perched one hip on the back on a nearby chair and then asked casually, "Back still giving you a problem?"
"In spite of what the doctors say, I'm fine. It was just a demanding day and I'm a little sore, that's all." Illya dropped his gaze for a moment and then his head bobbed back up. "Do you think the Old Man would mind if I checked in with Mark?"
"What do you think? Lie down." Napoleon pointed to the bed and Illya eased himself down onto it, burying his face into a pillow that Napoleon had used earlier for his nap, the towel draping his hips. "Did you change colognes?"
"Research strikes yet again. Apparently it's what all the well-dressed gays are wearing this year." Napoleon retrieved some liniment from his suitcase. He poured some into his palms, rubbing them together for a moment to warm them. "And this is the scent that all the over-worked partners are wearing." He knelt to one side of the Russian, grasping the man's shoulders in a firm grip. He worked them, letting his strong fingers dig into the rock hard muscles. "He did a number on you, old friend." Solo studied the Russian's back as he worked his way down from the tightly bunched muscles to the narrow waist. Like his back, Illya's carried a myriad of scars, a virtual portfolio of his profession, thought some of the scars were much fresher than others, angry maroon splotches on otherwise smooth lightly-tanned skin.
"Nothing like to what he did to you," Illya muttered through clenched teeth, obviously trying to work through the pain that Napoleon's massaging caused. Every few seconds, Illya's breath would catch, telling Napoleon that he'd reached the limit of his partner's pain threshold in that spot and he moved on.
"He only shot me, Illya, he didn't torture me." Not like you are, Napoleon thought as he worked carefully down each muscle applying enough pressure to work the knots out, stopping just this side of inflicting more damage. "I heard that the lighting designer is due to be in on Friday."
"So I've heard. Tesca was hell bent to get the light plot hung before then so that he could start adding cues." Illya's voice took on a strange edge as Napoleon's hands started traveling further down his back. He rolled slightly and stayed one hand in a firm, no nonsense grip. "That's enough, Napoleon, thanks. With any luck, the body will hold up until then." He kept the towel firmly around his waist and Napoleon couldn't help but wonder if Illya was stopping him in a desperate attempt to keep his body from further responding. Even with the towel, Illya's erection was obvious, but Napoleon kept his eyes averted, as if unaware of the reaction his touch had elicited. Now that was promising.
Napoleon turned Illya's hand palm up to examine its blisters. "Probably you should wear gloves tomorrow."
"I was wearing gloves." Illya rose slowly from the bed, his movements lacking his usual grace, and hobbled toward the bathroom. Napoleon heard the sink start running and the distinct sound of teeth being brushed. A moment later, his partner reappeared and started rummaging through the contents of his suitcase. After a moment, he found a clean tee shirt. He pulled it on and reached for a pair of black jeans. Still damp from his shower, he wiggled into them, leaving them unbuttoned as he sat back onto the bed to pull on his socks and sneakers.
"Wouldn't you be more comfortable wearing underwear?" Napoleon tried not to stare. God knows, I'd be more comfortable knowing you're wearing underwear.
"In this weather? Surely you jest. I don't know how you can even stand to wear a suit jacket and a tie."
"Habit, my dear Mr. Kuryakin, guided by a finely honed sense of hygiene. Something you will never have to struggle with. Besides I have a fitting tonight and I was informed politely that I would be wearing underwear." There was a knock at the door and Solo answered it.
The man standing outside looked vaguely familiar. It was one of the techs, but he couldn't tell which one. With the exception of the woman, they all looked the same to him. For his part, the man grinned and stuck out his hand.
"Hi, I'm Damien. Can Illya come out and play?"
"Give me one more minute, Damien," Illya answered as Solo shook the offered hand. "I got a little sidetracked. I'll be right with you." Illya tucked his shirt into his pants and carefully zipped them closed. Damien looked a little awkward at Illya's disarray, Napoleon's own state of undress, and the light came on for Napoleon. The young man thought they had just finished having sex. Certainly, all the evidence supported that.
Illya paused in front of a mirror for a moment to finger combed his bangs. He closed his suitcase, collected his sunglasses, communicator, room key and wallet from the bedside table and paused. "When will you be in tonight?" He worked the wallet into what little space a back pocket afforded.
"Don't know. Don't wait up. Behave yourself and don't have too much fun." Napoleon turned back to the technician, who was trying hard to not appear that he was watching their every move. "When he starts quoting Blake, it's time to bring him home. The last time he went out on a drinking binge, it took me four days to find him and three more days to sober him up."
Illya grimaced and adjusted his pants again and then started to push past his partner. Napoleon suddenly reached out and caught his arm, then dipped in for a kiss. As kisses went, it was pretty tame by Napoleon's usual standards, but it was enough to send his heart racing. He knew he'd taking Illya by surprise, although they had discussed the need for actual physical interaction in from of witnesses to support their cover.
Illya pulled back and licked his lips, as if tasting them, his eyes lowered. Napoleon knew that from outward appearances, it has a very sexual overtone to it. He could only guess what was going through his partner's mind. It came as a surprise to him when Illya raised a hand to caress his cheek and Napoleon turned his face into it, kissing the palm gently before Illya removed it. "Have a good rehearsal, Napasha, and no mugging." He winked, slipped on his sunglasses and was gone.
"God, I thought I was going to have to get a bucket of water," Damien said as they climbed into his car.
Apparent it didn't look as awkward as if felt then, Illya decided. Napoleon had caught him off-guard, but he was willing to play along and follow his partner's lead. Illya adopted an attitude of having just had very rewarding sex. Like I should be so lucky.
Sadly, since he and his partner were supposedly in a solid relationship, there would be no sneaking off for a quick assignation with another like-minded individual. It was going to be an assignment of on-the-sly hand jobs—the story of his life. "You're very young, aren't you?' Illya asked as he settled into the bucket seat of the El Camino and gently massaged his neck. Tonight everything hurt and there was every indication of it only getting worse. He just hoped that the painkillers he'd grabbed would soon kick in.
"I'm old enough to have been around." The statement was made with enough bravado to claim the opposite.
"Contrary to popular belief, one's sex drive does not stop at thirty-five. Napoleon likes to go into rehearsals...relaxed. I'm only too happy to oblige. Does this place we're going serve food?"
"Some of the best pizza in the valley. You like pizza?"
"After what I've been through today, I'll eat anything that can't outrun me. Well, almost anything. A man does have to have his standard. Ever you try honey ants? They have an interesting piquant. You just bite off the end and suck. I developed a fondness for them when Napoleon was on this weird bug diet. Not as good as the chocolate covered grasshoppers though, but I'm convinced that anything is palatable with enough chocolate."
"Ugh, I think I'll pass," Damien said, slowing the car for a stop sign and then he coasted through it without stopping.
Illya remained quiet for a moment, weighing the odds of getting a truthful answer from the young man sitting beside him. Finally, he ventured, "Damien, may I ask you a question?"
"Sure, why not?"
"What really happened to the man I'm replacing? Back in New York, all I was told he took off in the middle of the night. Nobody here seems to talk about it, which is very weird. In most theaters, that would be the sole topic of conversation, at least at the ones I've worked in."
"Who told you that Yancy took off?" The young man's voice had grown serious.
"It doesn't matter. What's the low down?"
Damien pulled the car over close to the shoulder and took a deep breath. "We're not really sure. Franklin was in that afternoon showing off his proto-type for something he's calling a moving light machine. Yancy was really interested and asked a lot of questions that Franklin couldn't or didn't feel like answering. He's that way sometimes." Illya made a note of that for later. "We knocked off about six thirty that night, but Yancy decided to sit through the rehearsal and he noticed that a couple of the rehearsal lights had burned out, so he offered to stay afterwards and troubleshoot them. Pieddy's not crazy about leaving anyone alone in the place, but it was locked up, so Pieddy didn't see any problems. Next thing we know they're scraping Yancy off the seats in Row H. "
"He offed himself?" Illya tried to make the question sound incredulous as he pulled off his sunglasses to study the man.
"The cops say it was suicide, but I don't think so."
Damien put the car in park and shut off the engine. He pulled off his sunglasses and stared earnestly at the Russian, his eyes glistening. "If I tell you, you have to swear that not a word will get out from the theater. If it does, I'm gonna know where to look. So help me, God, I'll hurt you."
In your dreams, little man, Illya thought. Instead he said, "You just met me, how do you know I'm trust worthy?"
"Call it a gut feeling. Do you swear?"
Illya nodded and set the glasses back in place. "Yes, you have my solemn oath that not a word will pass from my lips with regards to what you are about to tell me. Not even Napoleon, if you so wish."
"We were going to go away, just the two of us. Yancy said that when the show was over, he was leaving his SO and we'd just travel the country, working when we needed to and sightseeing when we didn't. It sounded so great and he was so excited, I just know he wasn't suicidal." Damien looked down at his hands and then over at the Russian, his eyes pleading. "Please, you can't say anything though. I'm not like you. I'm not out of the closet yet. My parents would freak if they found out."
Illya began to re-evaluate his former opinion of Putnam and his partner. Apparently they weren't as close as Longley would like them to believe. "You have my word," Illya said, gently, putting a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I know what it's like. Napoleon had a rough time with it."
"When did you know?" Damien started the car back up and put it into drive. Casting a fast glance in either direction, he eased back out onto the shimmering blacktop. "That you were gay?"
"Always, but it was easier for me. My older brother's also gay, so my parents didn't react too badly when they found out about me." The lie came easily for Illya. In his line of work, he lied at the drop of a hat until he occasionally got to a point of where the edges blurred even for him. Vyetka would die, if he'd heard it though. "However, I am still...cautious."
"Folks around here are pretty okay. Just be careful at the theater. We seem to be having lots of accidents lately. Even Tex hasn't been able to save us."
"Who's Tex? A technician I haven't met?"
Damien laughed and shook his head and the curly blond hair took a moment more to catch up with the movement. "He's our theater ghost. He died while the building was being constructed and is said to appear to technicians if they're doing something stupid or life threatening or both. Of course, in our line of work, it's sometimes hard to tell what's stupid and what's just regular stuff." Illya silently agreed with that. "Anyhow, he's supposed to walk the theater and protect us from ourselves. We all take him pretty seriously, even to the point of never selling H 206. Kinda funny though, that's the seat Yancy was found draped over."
"You have a strange sense of what's funny."
"Not funny ha-ha, funny peculiar. You know, ironic. Out of all those seats, to have ended up on that one is pretty weird. How do you explain it, Illya?" Damien pulled into the parking lot of the pizza parlor and into a space.
"I don't. Bad things just happen sometimes and there is no explanation. Life is like that, a dark shadow that surrounds us all."
"That's not Blake, is it? Because Napoleon said..."
"Fear not, my young friend. You will know when and if that time occurs, but I assure you it will mostly certainly take more than one pitcher of beer."
The entire atmosphere at the theater had changed with nightfall and it cascaded Napoleon back in time to when he was a mere boy, if such a thing had ever been possible. A group of people huddled around the door as he drove up and parked. Immediately aware of him, they stopped talking and stared. Napoleon put on his best face and slid out of the car. Mindful that he was 'the new kid', as it were, he made sure confidence dogged his every movement.
"I suspect our new Don Pedro approaches," quipped a man, his face hidden by encroaching shadows. He stepped out from the shadows as Napoleon drew closer.
"Napoleon Solo," the UNCLE agent said and offered a hand.
"You have got to be shitting me! That's got to be a stage name."
"It's mine, right and true," Solo answered as the man grasped his hand. "No one will ever accuse my parents of a lack of imagination. I figured it was either this or being a history teacher—this pays better, after a fashion."
"Phil Combs. I'm Benedict." Solo was quickly introduced around to the others.
"Just got time for a quick one before we start." Phil offered him a cigarette and Napoleon took it, using an engraved lighter one of his earlier conquests had given him. He didn't smoke on a regular basis, but this was a good way to work into the crowd. He made a mental note to buy a pack of his own tomorrow. He would, likewise, be expected to share.
"What brings you to our fair hamlet?" Combs asked.
"Variety. Your director took out a pretty impressive ad. Broadway's pretty quiet right now unless you can sing, which I can't or dance, which I won't. No new decent plays opening or even hiring. If it wasn't for Illya working steady, I'd be on a street corner selling pencils."
"Illya?" asked a woman. "I'm Vicki with an 'I', I'm playing Beatrice. Oh my God, is that the new blond walking around?" The other woman looked at her blankly. "You know—the one we saw in the hallway. The one wearing those jeans with the... you know... package?" The woman cupped her hand as if she was weighing something. "We saw him going up the deck ladder... ?"
Megan suddenly chuckled warmly with the memory. "Mmmm, yes, I seem to recall him now."
"I wondered... wait, you're not together? Please, please, please tell me you're not together."
Napoleon held up his left hand, a wedding band on his ring finger. "Sorry to disappoint."
"Aargh, I hate it here!"
"Hell hath no fury," quipped another actor. "You'll have to trot him around so we can check him out, Napoleon. Give you our professional opinion." He flexed his hands suggestively.
"No touching, just looking," Solo admonished, taking a long drag on his cigarette. He held it and then let it creep back out his mouth.
"Hey you wouldn't happen to have anything a little stronger, would you? I'm feeling a need," Vicki said coyly.
"What—the need to get stoned before your big scene with me? I think not, fair Beatrice," Phil said, making a face. "Like I like sucking on your face either."
"Bite me, Phillip," she said as the actor snapped his teeth at her. "How about it, Solo? Help out a lady?" Vicki asked, hitting Solo lightly in the shoulder. He rolled with the punch, not letting her feel the firm muscle there.
"Not on me, sorry." Napoleon shook his head. "Illya usually does, but I doubt if he brought any with him. It's easier to buy it local than risk a full body cavity search at the airport. Although..." He took one last puff and tossed the butt into the paint can. "He's told me some pretty interesting stories."
"Okay, everyone on stage, now," shouted someone.
"Better go," Phil advised Solo. "We don't want to piss off Putsy anymore than we have to. She is not in a good mood tonight."
"Oh as opposed to any other night?" Vicki asked, linking her arm with Solo's. "So, girlfriend, this Illya thing? You two really that tight or do you think he'd play?"
"Lordy, Vicki, back off," Meagan said, taking Solo's other arm.
"Hey, a girl has to ask these questions. Sometimes they swing both ways." She released Solo and led the way down the hallway, now lit with fluorescent lights towards the stage. "You need to know when to hold them," she started singing.
"Speaking of such, I'm assuming this Putsy is the stage manager?" Napoleon asked.
"Yeah," Meagan answered. "You can get a rehearsal schedule and all the other paperwork you have to sign. Tonight, we are working Scene 3.1 from the first act. Lucky you, you just get to watch us act."
"And do battle with the costume designer."
"Oh, you'll like him, though," Phil said, slapping Solo on the back as he passed. "He's got very warm hands. Oh, you did remember to wear underwear right? He's great, but he does like to... um... look."
Piedmont looked up as they entered the stage and he smiled at Solo. "You came back, Napoleon. I was afraid I might have scared you off."
"Nothing scares me, except bad reviews, of course."
"Putsy!" Piedmont called over to a dark haired woman. She looked up from the notebook she was holding. "This is our new Don Pedro. I'm going to get the others started on the scene."
The woman fumbled with her notebook for a moment before pulling out a handful of paper. "Here, you'll need to get these filled out by tomorrow. Sign the one on the top first, we can't let you on stage until you do."
Solo did as directed as actors began taking their places and handed it back to her. She looked it over and nodded, then pointed to a door. "Head down to the basement and see Chris. He's waiting for you in costuming, and then come back here. You're not slated to work tonight, but Pieddy might want to change that. Last thing we'd want to do is keep to the schedule."
Napoleon looked down at the paperwork and sighed, wondering if his partner was having as much fun.
Illya struggled to keep his head from dropping. After six pizzas and twelve pitchers of beers between them, he was definitely feeling the burn, as Napoleon liked to put it. Thinking of his partner made his smile. Between the alcohol and the painkillers, Illya was feeling very sated and more than ready for some sack time.
"You have a really goofy expression on your face, Illya. What's on your mind?" Hojo asked.
"When someone smiles like that, there's only one thing on his or her mind? Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. Am I right?" Heather asked and laughed as Illya held up his hands.
"I can't believe how you eat. Where do you put it?" Justin looked under the table to make sure the Russian hadn't disposed of anything down there.
"It's my metabolism. I hate it. However, it makes Napoleon crazy because he has to watch everything he eats." Illya paused to grin slyly and reach for his glass. "Justin, have you shared your gel story with everyone?"
"What...oh, that one. Yeah, you will not believe this one." Rapidly he related the exchange the men had had on the light bridge.
You really said that, Justin?" Heather managed to keep from slurring the words as she toppled against the tech. "That Na..Na..Na who again?" She looked around for help.
"Napoleon?" Ralph suggested.
"Would look better in a bastard?" She howled and the few workers remaining in the pizzeria glanced over at their table. It was nearly closing time and they were the only patrons left and it was obvious that the employees were anxious for their departure. Yet none of the techs seemed to be inclined to move and Illya followed their lead.
"Shut up, Heather!" Justin slapped at the woman with his hat. "Besides, Illya's folks are married." That set off another round of laughter, even Illya joined in, playacting at being drunker that he really was. Four hours and he still hadn't been able to get any information out of these people. Either they were very well coached or they simply didn't know anything.
"So, Illya, are you the husband or wife?" Hojo poured the last bit of beer into the Russian's mug.
"In your relationship—husband or wife."
"Do I look remotely like a wife to you?" Illya raised his hand to his chest. "Besides, what would Napasha want with one of those? I'm twice as much as he can handle as it is." Illya was working hard to keep up the subterfuge. It was getting more difficult as the questions grew increasingly bolder and personal. It was time to put an end to this. He drained his mug and stared into it. "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom. I care not whether a man is good or evil, all that I care is whether he is a wise man or a fool."
"That's Blake, isn't it," Ralph asked. He wadded up a napkin and tossed it onto the pile of plates in the middle of the table. "I remember that poem from lit class in college...or sort of anyhow. The first part is Proverbs from Hell, but I don't recognize the rest."
"Jerusalem," Illya said, regarding his empty beer mug seriously.
"Then that's your exit cue. I promised Napoleon I'd take you home once Blake showed up." Damien stood with the help of the table. "Man, I'm tired tonight."
"Hey, Illya, one more question before you go?" Heather seemed reluctant to have the party break up. She came around the end of the table to face him as he forced himself to his feet.
"What is it?"
"Ever make it with a girl?"
"Only when I was far drunker than I am now. Are you offering?" The woman's face flamed red and she shook her head. "I didn't think so. Shall we, Damien? I got some unfinished business back at the hotel... providing Napoleon has gotten back and is still... up."
They walked out of the pizzeria and Damian started laughing. He stopped walking and doubled over, pounding on his knee. "I have never seen Heather speechless before. I wish I had a camera for that! Illya, that was too funny."
Illya slid carefully into the bucket seat of the car and sighed. "I get so tired of every woman I meet trying to reform me. Why can't they just see that we're vested in a common interest and leave it at that? They like men, I like men—it's not that complicated."
Damien started the car and eased it out of the parking lot. At this time of night, the roads were empty except for them. After driving for a long moment, Damien cleared his throat. "Illya, there's something that I've been wanting to tell you all night, but there just wasn't the right moment for it."
"You know how we were talking about Yancy earlier?"
"We've had five other technicians die here, not just him."
That was enough to make the Russian sit up. "What? Does Piedmont know this?"
"Of course, he knows. Why do you think he's had to go all the way to New York for replacements? He can't pay area people enough to bring them in and the Board can't afford to pay for unionized help."
Illya nodded and sat back in the seat. "I wondered about that. The package they offered me was too good. So, why are you still here then and the others? If there's danger to any of you, you should leave."
"Mostly for personal reasons. A couple of the techs are...were good friends of mine. I figured I owed it to them to hang around and at least see the season out. The people are a little eccentric here, but who isn't? Besides we're all under contract until the end of the season. If we walk now, we're stripped of our benefits, along with our reputations. And you know as well as I do, in this business all you have is your reputation."
"Why are you suddenly telling me this?" A peal of distant thunder rolled through the narrow valley and Illya glanced up at the sky. It would be raining before too long and the air hung heavy and thick.
"I just want you to be careful, that's all." As if on cue, the sky opened and the rain started. It drummed on the car, nearly to the point of deafening the occupants.
Illya quietly let himself into the room, just on the off chance that Solo had already returned from rehearsal. One glance at the empty bed confirmed that the American was still at the theater. He shook the rain from his hair and arms before sitting down on the bed, to pull off his sneakers. That accomplished, he let his weary body flop back.
In his opinion the evening was a total disappointment, as far as fact finding went. The pizza had been good, the beer okay, but with the exception of the last minute revelation that Damien had made, Illya was no farther along in his investigation than when he'd started. There was nothing to indicate any sort of THRUSH involvement, nor was there anything to sway it. The waters were getting more and more murky.
He sat up and pulled off his damp tee shirt, his mind still on the comment that Damien had made about the dead technicians. It seemed strange that UNCLE hadn't mentioned it. Illya rolled to one side and retrieved the slender pen-like communicator from his pants pocket.
"Open Channel D please."
"Channel D is open. Illya, is that you?" A burst of static crackled across the channel as thunder rolled through.
"Yes, Janine, how are things in New York?"
"Hot and muggy. It rained this afternoon and that only made it worse."
"Us too, except that it's raining now. And it's still hot and muggy.
"Let's see, the cabbies are on strike, the garbage workers are pulling a sympathy strike and somebody's suing Macy's for prior use of the name. Someone in the mayor's cabinet was arrested for drug possession. Other than that, not much is new."
"Sounds about right. Can you patch me through to Research please?"
"Sure. Oh, hey, Illya, I have a message for you. It's from Mark."
Illya sat up quickly, "Yes? Is he alright?"
"Fine. He said 'Howzat'... I think that's how he pronounced it. I'm guessing that means something other than what it sounds like."
"It does indeed, Janine." Illya grinned, relived at the news. Obviously Mark had succeeded in taking Larson out. "Thank you—you've made a dying man very happy."
"I'll put you through," she responded with a chuckle.
"Research, what can I do for you?"
Illya grinned as he recognized the voice. He was feeling very magnanimous at the moment. "The meaning of life, Dellan, and failing that, I need some background information regarding the New Waylons theater group."
"I thought we already gave you all of that."
"So did I, but..." A noise outside the door stopped him. "Stand by." Illya dropped the communicator and rolled off the bed all in one movement. He retrieved his gun from his open suitcase and moved to one side of the window. He slowly pushed the curtain aside and released his breath. He returned to the bed and picked up the communicator again, still holding the gun. "Sorry, Dellan, I thought it was trouble, but it's only Napoleon. I need some information on the technicians. One of them mentioned that there have been several deaths over the past couple of years and it seems peculiar that no one mentioned anything about it before we got here."
"Maybe it's in a separate file. I'll go digging for you."
A second later, the hotel door opened and the dark-haired agent burst in, sending a fine mist of rain everywhere. Napoleon stopped at the sight of a gun in his partner's hand. He cocked his head to one side in question as Illya continued to speak into the communicator. "Trouble?" he mouthed and Illya shook his head.
"Anything would be helpful before we go in there like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As I recall, that ended badly for all parties involved," Illya said, setting the gun back down.
"You've been watching Westerns again. I'll do what I can, Illya. Say hey to Napoleon for me. Channel D out."
Illya capped the pen and tossed it over onto his open suitcase. "Dellan says hey, Napoleon." Then he paused and regarded his partner. "Were you in my suitcase tonight?"
"Why on earth would I be in your suitcase? We hardly share the same tailor or waistline. Why?"
"I know I shut it before I left, but when I went to get my gun, it was standing open." He looked over at Solo's, which stood undisturbed. "Curiouser and curiouser. I'm going to have to rethink what I said about THRUSH having possibly pulled out."
"Did you leave any ID in there?"
"Just the usual bogus items. The only thing that might compromise me would be my gun."
"When did you know THRUSH to leave a weapon behind? Or for that matter, any clue as to their having been here? Doesn't that strike you as being blatantly odd? THRUSH is often cocky, arrogant, but they have never been that sloppy."
"Nosy hotel clerks then? Vicarious thrills? Maybe someone was checking to see if it was all window dressing or if we really are a couple."
"Possibly, but why?" Napoleon took his suit jacket off and hung it on a provided wooden hanger. Then he started to undo his tie. "Is there trouble back home?"
"Not unless you want to count nailing Larson's coffin closed as trouble. To my way of thinking, it's a reason to celebrate."
"Illya, you were specifically ordered..."
"Fear not, Mark left word for me. I have not disobeyed orders from you or Waverly...this time." Illya set the Walther onto the nightstand. "You wound me to suggest otherwise."
"I know you very well, old friend, just remember that. By the way, for their part, the cast seems completely disinterested in Putnam's death. They all think it was suicide and have pretty much written him off. There doesn't seem to be an overwhelming love for technicians by the cast."
"And vice versa. The techs hold actors in pretty low regard, even though both need the other to make it all work. And for the record, all the techs think it was murder." Illya peeled off his pants and laid them on top of his suitcase so the cuffs would dry. "There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, to coin a phrase. According to Damien, Putnam was getting ready to leave with him after the run of the show." He pulled on his pajama bottoms and stretched his back before walking into the bathroom. "Also, Putnam marks the sixth death at the theater. Damien sprung that little bombshell on me about half an hour ago. It's why I called HQ."
"That seems contrary to the information we received." Napoleon finished hanging up his pants and turned back to the Russian, who was now brushing his teeth and rubbing the side of his face with one hand. "I think I'll poke around the theater a little tomorrow and see if I can pick up anything." The lights in the room flickered as a particularly loud and long roll of thunder drowned him out.
Illya spit out a mouthful of toothpaste. "Great, I understand all the flies will be hung and weighted tomorrow. We could use the help."
"That's not what I had in mind."
Illya grinned. "Somehow, I suspected as much."
Napoleon waited as the Russian abandoned the bathroom before claiming it as his own.
In the meantime, Illya climbed into one side of the double bed. It wasn't the first time he'd shared a bed with his partner and certainly wouldn't be the last, not with the way UNCLE was cutting its budget. Usually it wasn't a problem, but usually he was able to 'take care of things' in a more discreet manner. So far he'd not been able to secure any alone time for even the fastest of hand jobs. He hated assignments like this. It was easier to deal with his preferred lifestyle when his very heterosexual partner wasn't attached to his hip.
Illya shut off the light on his side of the bed and leaned back against the pillows. A dull ache was starting to worm its way back into his body. "Napoleon, would you bring me a couple more pain pills when you come out?"
"You're hitting those pretty hard." Napoleon said, shutting off the bathroom light. He handed his partner the pills and regarded the man closely. "Those things are hell on your liver. Is this something I need to be concerned about?"
"If there is, you will be the first to know, of that I have no doubts." Illya chewed the pills and swallowed, making a face at the bitter taste. He learned from much experience that chewing them made them work faster. "The job is just more physical that I was prepared for." He resettled against the pillows and shut his eyes. Even then, he was aware of his partner studying him. "I'm fine, Napoleon. Stop mother henning me."
"It's not that."
The pause was so long Illya thought his partner must have dropped off mid-thought. He turned his head and saw that Napoleon was sort of hovering between standing and sitting, as if he was afraid to come to bed. There was an odd look on the man's face as well, one that Illya had not seen before, as if Napoleon was slightly afraid of him and there was a flash of something more in his eyes. That made no sense at all. If it was anyone else, Illya would have chalked it up to desire, but not Napoleon.
"Napoleon, now you have me concerned. What's wrong?"
"I...ah...just wanted to apologize for earlier."
"I am full of pain medication and alcohol and jet lagged, please just say what you need to say and be done with it. You're making my head hurt."
"The kiss...I know that startled you."
"It did, but we had discussed the need for physical demonstration. For what it was worth, Damien was suitably fooled." There was that flash again in Napoleon's eyes. "But I'm sensing there's something else." Illya sat up and turned his light back on. His partner seemed almost stunned by the brightness and turned away.
"What if we have to do...more?"
"Napoleon, usually you are more sagacious with your speech. More what? Kissing? More physical demonstrations?" Then a thought struck Illya and he felt like slapping his forehead. "Napoleon, do you want to kiss me again?" It wouldn't be the first time he'd seen a man drawn in a similar situation by curiosity.
"Strictly for research, you understand."
His partner's voice was so hopeful that Illya started to chuckle. "Of course, I entirely understand. In Russia, men kiss each other all the time. It's considered a normal show of affection." They met halfway across the bed, lips barely touching at first. Then Illya felt the slightest flick of a tongue across his bottom lip and smiled, opening his mouth to it. If Napoleon wanted to explore uncharted territory, as it were, he certainly wasn't going to stand in his way. In fact, it was just what his testosterone-charged nerves were craving. How he was going to explain away a sizable erection was another problem, but one he'd deal with later.
Napoleon pressed down and Illya, unresisting, went to the mattress, their mouths and tongues still happily engaged. Napoleon's hands started moving along Illya's shoulders and down his chest, so Illya took equal advantage and started his own mapping, feeling the taut body pressing against him. Illya let his hand drift down Napoleon's back, stroking with a feather light touch until his partner ground his hips forward.
Illya groaned at the sensation of Napoleon's erection grinding against his. This was definitely a surprise. He'd never expected Napoleon to react like this, but Illya Kuryakin was no fool and knew to take advantages of situations as they were presented to him. He pushed back and heard Napoleon rumble in response. There was no denying the lust in the sound and Illya suddenly started to chuckle.
Napoleon pulled back, a mixture of concern and confusion decorating his face. "What's wrong?"
"How long?" Illya asked.
"The Navy. My father said they made men, well, they certainly made me..." Illya reached around Napoleon to cup his ass tightly, increasing the pressure against his groin. "Remind me to send Waverly a fruit basket."
"Fruit...basket?" Napoleon started to laugh, then caught his bottom lip between his teeth, moving his hips in a instinct-driven rhythm.
"It's either that or nuts." Illya worked his hands beneath the elastic of Napoleon's pajama bottoms. "There are too many clothes between us. I want to feel you." Somehow, garments were hastily discarded without a break in either's movements and Illya slid a hand between them to catch their penises in a comfortably snug embrace. Then it was simply a matter of letting their own bodies take over and drive them forward.
It was very cozy when Illya woke the next morning. To be honest, he didn't mind waking up with someone in bed, although he rarely allowed himself the opportunity. There were very few people Illya would feel comfortable enough with in bed to fall asleep. It reminded him of an earlier time in his life, when he and his siblings shared a single bed and would wake every morning in a tangle of arms, legs and bedclothes.
Slowly, his body realized he was awake and began a cacophony of complaints. His bladder joined into the fray and Illya reluctantly extricated himself from the bedclothes. His pajama bottoms lay crumpled on the floor where he'd tossed them after cleaning himself and Napoleon off. Well, it wasn't like he was going to be wearing these again anytime soon.
He glanced over at the still sleeping Napoleon and smiled. They were due for a long talk when time permitted it. The fact that Napoleon and he were of like...minds was a pleasant surprise, but Illya needed to know where their path was leading. Was this a one-night, blowing off steam roll in the hay or something more?
Illya rose and started a none-too-straight walk towards the bathroom. He turned the water on in the tub, adjusted the temperature and turned his attention to relieving his complaining bladder. By the time he'd finished, the water was hot and the bathroom was filled with steam. He gathered up his safety razor and toothbrush and eased under the shower stream. It was painfully hot at first, but then his joints and muscles began to relax as the water pounded them.
He'd shaved, brushed his teeth and was soaping his chest when he heard the bathroom door open and then followed the unmistakable sound of urination.
The toilet flushed and the water suddenly grew blistering hot. "Napoleon, would you mind giving me a heads up before you do that?" Illya shouted as he pushed the showerhead away from him and waited for the water to cool down again.
"Sorry. If it's any consolation, I left coffee for you on the counter. Do you...ah...need some help in there?"
"While the thought is amusing and appreciated, the porcelain is much too slick to permit such a thing."
"And I thank you for that offer." Illya finished washing and turned off the shower to stand there for a moment longer letting the water drip from his body. He felt just rotten enough to know he was alive.
Then the shower curtain slid back and Napoleon stood there, his robe gaping open, a glorious sight of manliness, at least in Illya's opinion, holding a towel in one hand. The reality was that he probably could have just draped it over the top of his rather impressive erection and been done with it. And Illya suddenly grew forgetful of his aches and pains at the sight.
Illya climbed carefully from the tub to stand before his partner, his own interest obvious. "Not on your life." He pressed up against Napoleon, his mouth starting an exploration of still new territory. For a long moment, there was nothing but the sound of their breathing and rumblings of pleasure.
"What are we doing, my friend?" Illya licked his way up Napoleon's neck to his ear.
"Besides the obvious, you mean?" Napoleon arched his neck, giving Illya free rein.
He was cut off by a crash as something flew through the plate glass window and erupted into flames. Smoke billowed from the bed as the sheets and blankets instantly caught fire.
"Napoleon!" Illya yelled as used his damp towel to beat down the flames. In a moment, Napoleon was at his side.
"Door!" Napoleon pushed his partner towards it and belted his robe with one hand. He wrestled it open just as the manager and several guests appeared outside.
"What on God's green earth is happening here?" the manager demanded of the pair, looking from one to the other accusingly, as if they would start the room on fire with them inside it. The fact that one man was naked seemed of little concern when compared to loss of revenue.
Finally the sprinklers went off, drenching everything in a fine spray. The flames fought back for a moment, then surrendered and died.
"That is a very good question, Napoleon," Illya said as he tied a soot-blackened towel about his waist and brushed his hair back from his face. "What on earth did just happen?"
"So let me get this straight. You two were just 'standing,'" He made quotation marks with his fingers. "Around in the bathroom talking and somebody tosses a Molotov cocktail into your room?" Chris Ruskin was New Waylons police chief. During his stint as an officer, he'd dealt with his share of difficulties. Usually they had a pretty straightforward solution to them. He watched as firefighter dragged the remnants of the mattress out into the parking lot. "I'm sorry but doesn't that strike you as a little weird?"
"No, sadly, not in our line of work. And actually I was talking. Napoleon was getting ready to take a shower. I'd just finished," Illya said as he pulled a slightly damp tee shirt over his head. He'd already taken the time to pull on a pair of jeans while Napoleon was still wearing his robe. There was no need to go into any other aspects of their tete-a-tete.
"I see. Any ideas of who would toss a bomb into your room and for what reason?"
Illya poked through the remains of his suitcase. In the direct path of the bomb, it had sustained the most external damage, but the inside was still reasonably intact, albeit a bit damp from the sprinklers. He arched his neck and then popped it, sighing softly. "I don't know. Napoleon, do you want to start the list or shall I? I'd recommend getting some coffee though, sheriff. This could take awhile."
Ruskin abruptly slammed his hand against the wall. "What games are you and your so-called partner playing at, Mr. Solo? You people are always coming into town and getting folks worked up with your alternative lifestyles. I've just about had it with you theater types!"
Napoleon walked over to the small cubbyhole behind the front door that acted as a closet and reached into his jacket pocket to draw out his identification card. He held it up to the police chief as Illya flipped his own card out of his wallet. "And how do you stand on the topic of international enforcement agents?"
"What?" He looked at the card, then at the one that Kuryakin held. "You're spies? Honest to God spies?"
"Why do people always say that? They look at the ID and think we're spies" Kuryakin asked his partner, who simply shrugged his shoulders. "I liked it better when he thought we were gay."
"It's your accent—very Cold War. Listen, Chief Ruskin, there's something very ugly happening in your town and we've been sent here to stop it. I can't go into details, but we are here to put an end to it. There have been a number of unexplained deaths at the theater."
"I don't know of any other than that Putnam fellow at the theater."
"He was one of our agents," Solo explained. "That why we're here."
"I see now. But we ruled that a suicide."
"Did you perform an autopsy?" Illya asked, looking up from tying his sneakers.
"The fall broke him in half, literally; we know what killed him."
"By law, anyone who dies and is not under a doctor's care requires a mandatory autopsy. Do you perform an autopsy or do I?"
"Can't. He's already been cremated. That friend of his was pretty anxious to get the details attended to. Besides, he had a note in his pocket."
Illya exchanged a concerned look with Solo. "This is yet another piece of information that wasn't forwarded. This investigation is beginning to turn up more questions than answers, Napoleon."
"I'd like to see that note if possible," Solo said. "A technician told us that there had been five other deaths at the theater. Why would he lie?"
"Why would I?" Ruskin asked, obviously not intimidated by Solo. "Despite what you might think, New Waylons is a nice little town and I don't want any trouble."
"Well, unfortunately, it looks like you've got it and big time. Unless, of course, tossing incendiaries is the normal way of getting things done around here. This is California, after all." Solo said as the firemen moved the still-smoldering box springs out of the room. A shrill on-off chirp interrupted the chief, and Illya pulled his communicator from his tee shirt pocket. He twisted off the cap and raised the antennae in one smooth practiced move.
"Illya." Dellan's voice was tinny with distortion. "I did that digging you asked for and came up with some information. It seems that someone with a lot of money has been keeping things very quiet at the theater for a very long period of time. The first death was of a technician who was installing the lighting system. He had apparently been told that the area was safe, but the framework had only been tacked and not completely welded. He fell and landed on the same seat as Putnam did. And, get this, all the following deaths have also been lighting related."
"That would confirm was Damien told me," Illya said aside to his partner as the New York agent continued.
"Putnam was supposed to be replacing some lamps in instruments when he died. One guy was fried when he tried to plug in a spotlight. Our source said that the wire had been stripped and the ground removed. Another took a spill from a twenty-two foot ladder when he was refocusing a light. He died on the way to the hospital of a ruptured spleen. Just before Putnam, a woman tested a circuit while standing on a metal grate. The witness said smoke came out her ears." The Russian grimaced at the visual image and it was clear from his tone that the research clerk was just warming up.
"That's enough visual, I think, Dellan," Solo interrupted. "Where did you get all of this?"
"Hi, Napoleon! I called the San Jose office. They knew all about the deaths and had turned the details over to the UNCLE courier. I don't know why it wasn't forwarded. You guys watch yourselves. It looks like you're playing with the big boys on this one. I don't know if it's THRUSH, but whoever it is, is playing for keeps."
"Thanks, Dellan, we'll let Mr. Waverly know what you've found. By the way, was there anything in the report about a suicide note found with Putnam's body?"
"Not to my knowledge. Let me do some more digging. It'll give me something to do. You know how quiet it can get down here, especially when everyone's out of town."
"I owe you one, Dellan. Channel D out." Illya slid the antennae back into place and held the instrument out to his partner. "Why don't you brief Mr. Waverly, Napoleon? You are the senior agent on the case, after all."
"Thanks, but I'll delegate that task on to you, my worthy second-in-command." Napoleon suddenly became aware of Ruskin, who had been sitting quietly though out the exchange. "Anything to add, Chief?"
"As God is my witness, I knew nothing about any of this." He rose from his spot at the built-in desk and headed for the door. "But I sure as hell am going to find out. Oh, the manager will be moving you a few doors down. My boys will need to go over this one." He left, but without answering any of the questions that arose with him.
"We'll collect what's left of our luggage and be along," Napoleon said after him. He straightened up and started to take his suit from the hanger. The overhang had protected it from any water damage. He walked back into the bathroom.
"I think it's time to go work anyhow," Illya said. No use playing here anymore—all the swings are broken." Illya worked a shoulder to loosen it. "I feel like I've gone ten rounds with Delgado this morning. I know how you stand on the subject, Napoleon, but..."
"I'll grab you a couple," Napoleon said from the bathroom. "Or would you prefer something a bit more homeopathic?"
"I can't believe you said that," Illya answered, smiling. "And as tempting an offer as that is, I think I should head over to the theater. I have several more questions that I would like answers for and I have a feeling we'll find them there."
"Give me a minute and I'll join you."
Napoleon opened the stage door and allowed Illya to precede him into the darkened hallway. While they could see the group of techs at the other end, they were still hidden by shadows. Impulsively, Napoleon dipped in and kissed Illya. He was delighted when the Russian neither evaded nor rebuked his advances. Instead, he participated fully and Napoleon wanted to start yelling.
He had had no idea of Illya's persuasion and now kicked himself for opportunities missed. If it was left up to him, they were both just starting to explore their partnership from a whole new angle. The unfortunate part was that his mind, while earlier toying with the idea of his partner, was now obsessed and that could be deadly for both of them. He needed to concentrate upon their mission, not his partner's...attributes.
"There will be time, Napoleon," Illya murmured softly, as always attuned to Napoleon's thoughts. "We need to stop now while I can still walk. These jeans are very...tight."
Napoleon nodded and draped an arm casually around Illya's shoulders as he propelled him forward.
Both men were greeted enthusiastically in the hallway by the group of technicians as they entered.
"Is it true that your room was blown up?" Heather demanded, the moment the men were within earshot. Her eyes traveled almost instantly down Illya's body and stopped just below waist level.
"Good news travels fast," Illya muttered tucking his sunglasses away as Napoleon dropped his arm from Illya's neck.
"Are you two all right?" That was from Hojo, who was exhibiting enough interest to put down the comic he was reading. "You look like you're limping, Illya."
"From another reason entirely, I assure you," Napoleon murmured in his ear and Illya grinned sheepishly.
"Do you feel up to working today?" That, of course, came from Tesca, a clipboard in his hands.
"Yes, to all the questions," Illya said, as he sank into an open spot on the couch between Heather and Damien. The woman immediately draped her legs over Illya's lap. Solo remained standing, studying the group, amazed at how easily the Russian fit in.
"Great! Where is Franklin?" Tesca looked at his watch and scowled, then shook his head. "I get so tired of waiting for him. Just because he did a co-design on Broadway once, he thinks he can swing his frigging weight around whenever it strikes him. I am going to my office. When his Lordship arrives, send him up." Tesca stood and was gone.
"No more love there," Hojo mumbled, this time not bothering to glance up from his comic book. "There's nothing worse than a woman scorned."
Damien offered both men a bleary smile. Obviously the night before was still with him. "Paul used to do the lighting around here, but somehow Franklin was brought in to design. They got along fine at first, really fine, if you know what I mean and then something major happened. We're not sure exactly what, but they can barely stand to be civil to each other anymore. You'd have to meet Franklin to understand."
Heather hefted her legs off Illya's lap and stood, running her hands down her pants legs. "Well, that drop isn't going to paint itself, so I am going to go drown my sorrows in a can of diet soda and a gallon of velour black. Ready or not, the show is going to open." She walked over to the scene shop door and disappeared inside.
Napoleon smiled and hooked a finger at the stage right door. "I think I'll see if I left my script in there." He moved in that direction and disappeared inside.
"Illya, did you get all that gel cut yesterday," Ralph asked as Illya watched the dark-haired agent disappeared behind the stage door. Illya sat back, blinking.
"What? Yes, fifteen cuts of surprise pink, twelve of Congo blue, twenty three of the early morning pink and two of the straw and ten of bastard amber and we gelled the ETCs on the second cat, but that Congo is so saturated, you might want..."
Anything else that he might have said was cut off by a scream. Illya was moving before the rest of the group could even react. He charged into the scene shop and was greeted by another scream.
Heather was clutching her hair as Illya ran up to her grabbing her by her arms. "Heather, what..?"
There was no need to ask anything further as he spotted the body hanging from the paint frame, swinging gently from side to side, the feet just inches from the floor. Likewise, there was no reason to even think as Illya produced a pocketknife and cut through the rough hemp that surrounded the man's neck. The hardest part was keeping the man from falling back into the paint well, a drop of forty feet. His face was suffused with an affixation blue, but the man's skin was still warm to the touch Illya noticed as he wrestled the larger man to the paint-splattered floor. He probed the neck for a pulse and ordered, "Heather, call 911."
She merely stood and stared. Illya shouted as the rest of the group finally arrived, "Somebody, call 911!" Ralph stared for a moment and then raced off. "Does anyone know CPR? Mouth-to-mouth?" At the blank looks, he shook his head and swore loudly in Russian. "Get Napoleon! Now!" He loosened the rope around the man's throat and tilted his head back.
It seemed to the Russian that it took forever for his partner to arrive and spell him. It took even longer for the paramedics to arrive. They got the stranger on a stretcher, all the time continuing the CPR and mouth-to-mouth, but Illya could tell it was already too late. He sat on the cool cement floor of the scene shop watching them take the dead man out and rested his arms on his knees.
"You tried, Illya, you really did," consoled Hojo as they watched the vehicle disappear in the distance. He mistook the agent's posture for depression instead of the battle that Illya was doing with the pain in his shoulders and back.
"You did good, old friend." Napoleon, on the other hand, knew instantly the problem and began to gently rub Illya's shoulders.
Illya, had it been anyone else, would have pushed them away, but at the moment, he was too tired and he relaxed back into the massage. "He's still dead, Napoleon."
"I wish I'd decided to go paint a little earlier," Heather moaned, sinking down onto the floor not far from the Russian.
"Wouldn't have made any difference, none of us know CPR. Only Illya and Napoleon did." Damien's voice was brittle. "I don't know how much more of this I can handle. It's like we're running a morgue here. By the way, Illya, that was Franklin, our lighting designer."
"The one with the new light proto-type?" Napoleon asked, looking up from his task. "How did he get hung up on the paint frame?"
"Not by himself, that's for sure," murmured Heather, her hands still shaking. Illya's arm went around her shoulders as she leaned against him.
"Why do you say that?" Napoleon shifted so that he knelt before her. He reached for her hands and stared into her face, studying her eyes for signs of shock.
"When I came in, the paint frame was down in the well. I grabbed my paint and I raised the frame up in order to...I...I didn't see Franklin until I turned around. How would he have gotten in here," Heather asked softly. "He didn't have any keys to the shop that I knew of."
"Somebody should go let Paul know that he's just gotten his wish." Heather got to her feet and took a deep breath. "Now I really I need a Diet Coke. Maybe something even a little stronger."
"Maybe you should go home," Illya suggested as he stood. He was used to dealing with death. At times, it seemed his constant companion, but he was well aware its effect on others.
"No, if I go home, I'll really start to think about things, although I suspect it'll be a long time before the paint frame doesn't make me feel...feel. Excuse me, please." Heather suddenly bolted from the room and Damien took a step after her.
"She needs to be alone for a minute, Damien." Napoleon caught his arm.
"Guess Tex has another friend now," Hojo said, glancing over at Illya and back at the paint frame, where part of the rope still hung.
"That's the second time I've heard that name," Solo said as they walked back into the hallway.
"His real name was Kenneth Longley and he was the electrician for this theater while it was built," Hojo said, retaking his seat on the dilapidated couch
"The man who fell through the framework onto seat H-206," Illya added. He remained standing, his arms crossed.
"All these techs that died here, Damien..." Napoleon asked and then had a thought. "Were they all gay?" he asked.
"Two were, well, three now. One was a lesbian and two swung both ways, which is pretty usual with theater. There aren't too many straight theater folks these days. Ask Heather when she gets back, she should be able to tell you. It really puts a damper on her dating."
"Don't know. I would have been two when he died and that's not the part of the story that's been carried on. Why?" Damien sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
"Just a theory I'm working on."
All four of the men looked up as Tesca approach, his face an ugly mask of anger. He walked directly up to Kuryakin and grabbed him by his tee shirt.
"Why did you let him die?"
"I did not let him die!" Illya snapped and he grasped each of Tesca's wrists and applied pressure with his thumbs. With a cry, Tesca pushed him away. It was only Napoleon and Damien who kept Illya from falling backwards over the coffee table. Immediately the Russian righted himself. "I tried to resuscitate him. If your technicians had been trained in CPR or mouth-to-mouth, things might have been different. If you're looking for someone to blame, Mr. Tesca, I suggest you start with the person who killed him, not the ones who tried to save him." He shook off their hands and balanced his weight. If Tesca wanted a fight, Illya was ready now.
Tesca glared at him for a long moment and stormed off.
"Illya, you okay?' Ralph joined them and the Russian looked at him as if he'd never seen the ME before. Then he spun on his heel and headed in the opposite direction. Damien took a step and Napoleon caught him.
From behind him, Illya heard his partner say, "That would be most unwise. Damien, Illya's too volatile right now. You'd better let me."
Napoleon caught up with the Russian outside the backdoor. From the condition of the man's knuckles, he guessed Illya had performed some impromptu bag work on something nearby.
"I almost hurt him, Napoleon." Illya's voice was soft, dangerously so. "I didn't even see him. If you hadn't been there..." He took a few paces away.
"It's delayed stress, Illya. Fortner warned you about it." Napoleon studied his partner for a long moment, watching him critically. He was all too aware of the games adrenaline played with the human body. "Do you want to be pulled from the mission?"
"No, not again. I just need a couple more minutes."
"Okay, I'm going back in."
"Is he okay?" Heather asked Napoleon. She'd rejoined the group, still looking a little green around the gills. Obviously, someone had brought her up to speed on the confrontation between Tesca and Illya.
"He had a bad time when he came out. A bunch of guys found him, and well, what they left behind wasn't pretty. It took him a long time to come back from that and any kind of physical violence puts him into a sort of flashback mode. The only difference between then and now is about four black belts in various martial arts. Paul came very close to being horrifically hurt, unlike the poor tree Illya's beating to death now." There, Napoleon thought, that should give Illya enough of a cover story to work with. "If you'll just offer him first aid when he comes back in, I need to find Tesca and have a little chat."
"Office on the third floor."
Solo knocked once on the scarred door, but didn't wait for an invitation.
"That was very stupid of you, Mr. Tesca." Napoleon was not swayed by the man's red-rimmed eyes and streaked face.
"So who cares?"
"You should. I suggest you tread very carefully around Illya for the next few hours."
"Mr. Tesca, Paul, I know you've had a shock and I know you're hurting, but you came very close to an edge most men don't even want to look over. Illya is not what he appears."
"And just what is he?"
"A powerful friend or a formidable enemy. It's your call." Napoleon left, closing the door firmly behind him.
Illya slumped in the auditorium seat and tried to keep from nodding off. Most of the technicians had departed, heading back for the same bar as the night before, but Illya was simply not in the mood for camaraderie.
When he'd returned, Heather was there with a first aid kit and his knuckles were wrapped without comment. When Tesca reappeared, he was subdued, but hell bent for making up for lost time. Illya had loaded and unloaded flies until he thought his arms would drop from their sockets.
Tesca never met the Russian's eyes once and that was fine with Illya. But he was going to have to find out what Napoleon had told them for they were tiptoeing around him as if he was nitroglycerin.
Piedmont was up on the stage, busily instructing Napoleon and two other actors as a fourth stood off to one side.
"Okay, the three of you sit. You know Benedict is behind you, you want him to hear you, you know he's listening, so reel him in."
Napoleon looked at the other two men and nodding, they sat.
"Hath she made her affection known to Benedict?" Napoleon asked, leaning close to the men.
"No, and swears she never will," responded the shortest and youngest of the three. "That's her torment. She'll be up twenty times a night, and there she will sit in her smock til she have writ a sheet of paper."
All the while they were speaking, a blond man was peeking over invisible bushes, his eyes confused, his curiosity piqued.
The older actor continued, "My daughter is sometimes afeared she will do a desperate outrage to herself. It is very true." As if pulled by the same string, the three men crossed their legs and shook their heads sadly.
"Perfect," Piedmont called. Perfect, but it looked identical to the scene they'd just finished and the one before that and the one before that. The repetition was beginning to wear Illya down and he tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling, his eyes traveling the width of it.
Suddenly he was aware of a man staring down at him from the lower catwalk. He'd never seen him before and Illya frowned as he sat up, trying for a better look. The head never moved and Illya blinked to make sure it wasn't a trick being played by the lighting. Leaning forward, he tapped Ralph on the shoulder and pointed up.
"Do you see that?" he whispered.
"See what?" Ralph whispered back, blinking as he followed Illya's point into the lights. "I don't see anything." He shaded his eyes and shook his head.
Illya checked again, but the man hadn't moved. Still watching, still staring at him. "You can't see him?"
"See who, Illya? You been smoking something?"
"Not lately. There's someone up there. How do I get up there?"
"Fastest way is up the backstage ladder and through the cats. Be quiet because Pieddy will have your guts for garters if he hears you clumping around up there."
Less than five minutes later, Illya stood on the third catwalk, looking down through the protective grating to the lower catwalk. In the thick dust that covered the plywood walkway, he could see footprints, Putnam's, apparently, leading off to the left. However, no footprints led to the point of where the stranger would have been standing to look down upon Illya.
Whoever it was must not have suffered from vertigo. He'd have to be dangling out over there. Illya felt a tingling at the nape of his neck made him spin. Reaching out he grabbed the shirtfront of the person beside him. Tipping his hip to one side he threw the person easily and placed a suffocating foot upon the neck, while twisting an arm.
"Sweet Jesus, don't hurt me," Damien cried.
"Stop," cried out Napoleon's voice and Illya obeyed as the voice made its way through the thick red haze that clouded his vision.
A voice from below shouted. "Do you mind if we keep the acting confined to the stage, crew? We are trying to work down here." Illya started at the tech for a long moment before Solo's voice started up again.
"Sorry, don't know where that came from," Napoleon's voice apologized. "Line?"
"Umm, hold on a minute," a stranger's voice ordered. "...I pray you will tell Benedict of it, and hear what a' will say."
"Right, thanks. I pray you will tell Benedict of it, and hear what a' will say."
Quietly, Illya yanked Damien to his feet and pushed him towards a spiral staircase that led into the light booth. Once down inside the room, Illya turned upon the man, pushing him back against the wall, demanding, "Why were you spying on me?"
"Why would I spy on you, Illya?" Damien's voice was cut with terror.
"I saw you watching at me from the lower catwalk." Illya tightened his grip on the man's arms and used leverage to lift the man up the wall so that his feet dangled.
"Ow...you couldn't pay me to get on the lower cat. This may make you laugh, but I'm afraid of heights. I'm fine on the catwalks or in the lift, but not when facing wide-open spaces," Damien protested, but apparently had the common sense to not struggle in Illya's grip. "I saw you standing up there when I came into the booth and thought I'd see what was going on."
Illya relaxed his hold on the tech and the man dropped to the floor. "I'm sorry, Damien. It's just that..."
"Napoleon already explained it to us. It's okay." He massaged a bicep gingerly as he got to his feet. "Man, you're high strung. You need to get laid...again."
You have no idea, Illya thought as he looked through the plate glass window to his partner on the stage below. "I saw someone watching me, just to one side of the front lighting position," Illya offered by way of an explanation.
"We're all a little jumpy, man. No one would be out there, not unless they were belted off. It's theater policy...unless it was Tex, of course."
"I do not believe in ghosts." There was a sharp crack overhead and both men's heads turned to look back towards the catwalks as a set of cables started slowly swinging. "But I am always willing to temper my beliefs."
"Maybe we need to get out of here and down among the living again," Damien suggested.
Illya nodded, "You're right, it is time to get out of here."
"You need a ride back to the hotel?" There was an exterior door leading down into the parking lot and the tech moved down the stair with an air of familiarity. Illya followed.
"No, the fresh air will calm me down." Their descent ended up just a short distance from the stage door. "Again, I am sorry, Damien. I didn't mean to hurt you. Ice will help your neck...and your arms."
"It's okay, man. I'm gonna have bruises that rule tomorrow. I'll see you round."
Illya watched the tech disappear down the alleyway and into the muggy California night. Twilight had started to twist shapes into shadows. Illya glanced over his shoulder at the stage entrance at a bunch of people, smoking, talking, and laughing. Illya recognized Napoleon's voice and headed towards it.
Napoleon saw the Russian coming and gestured to the group. "You have asked and I have delivered." He draped a possessive arm around Illya's shoulders and his partner tipped his head back against it. "This is Illya. Illyusha, the cast."
A splattering of greetings was thrown in his direction and Vicki giggled. "You're right, girlfriend, you do have impeccable tastes. He's even better looking in person."
"Avec oui, I told you so," Solo answered in a thick French accent. He lifted his arm to brush at Illya's hair and the Russian leaned into it. With his other hand, he offered Illya the cigarette he'd been smoking. Without missing a beat, Illya took it and inhaled. Like Solo, he didn't smoke as a rule, but there were times, like now, when he missed it. Then he looked disappointedly at the cigarette.
"Tobacco...what a waste of time." He reached into his tee shirt pocket. "Want something a little more..."
"I do," Vicki snatched at the joint, but Illya evaded her easily.
"Don't tease the lady, Illyusha," Napoleon said, laughing, as he took the marijuana from his partner and gave it to the actress. "She is dealing with enormous pressure, you being gay and all. So, what did you think of the scene?"
"That was the sorriest case of over-acting I've ever seen." Illya tossed Napoleon's arm off of his shoulders and handed him back the cigarette, accepting the lit joint Vicki offered him. "I only hope your fellow actors can carry you." He took a deep drag and held the smoke in as he passed it back.
"Sticks and stone, my love," Napoleon said, laughing.
Illya chuckled, slowly releasing the smoke and then added, "Seriously, never better."
"You see? This is why I keep him around. Well, there are a couple other big reasons." Solo saw the veiled concern in the Russian's eyes and pointed to a partially secluded area. Grabbing Illya's arm, Solo steered him in that direction and said over his shoulder. "And speaking of such, would you excuse us for a moment?"
They reached that shadows and Napoleon gathered him into his arms. Illya, obviously still awkward at their new standings, shifted restlessly in the embrace.
"We're being closely watched, Illya. Make it look good." Napoleon ordered in a soft voice and his face was suddenly grasped and Illya plundered his mouth, as if that and only that would calm in a rocky world.
Illya broke the kiss and stared, eyes half open. "Good?"
"I'd say fast learner, but I'd be wrong in that assumption. So what were you and Damien getting into up there?" Solo whispered, his lips close to Illya's ear, then moving down Illya's neck. "Or should I even ask?"
"Damien discovered that he shouldn't sneak up on me," Illya murmured back, keeping his head bent. "If you hadn't stopped me, I'd have snapped his neck. Thank you, by the way." Napoleon's mouth suddenly bit down and Illya caught his breath. "According to Damien, I need to get laid."
"Give me another half an hour and I'll make your wildest dreams come true."
"Doubtful, but I'm game if you are." Illya used Napoleon's body to block the view from his fellow actors as he adjusted himself. "These pants are hell to pay on an erection. I'm going to need a sling if you do that anymore."
"See you around eleven."
The new room wasn't that much different from the old room and Illya barely registered the difference. He stripped down and began to run water. His muscles were screaming out for some nurturing and he could think of no better way to do that than a hot bath. He undid the tape on his hands and inspected the damage. Nothing but some skinned knuckles and bruising. He'd obviously live.
Gingerly he lowered himself in the bath, grimacing at the first contact with the water, and then, sighing, he fully immersed himself.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, willing his body to relax. Who had been hanging over the edge, looking at him tonight? And why could he see him and Ralph could not? Probably had to do with the angling of the lights, but according to rumor, Tex only showed up when someone was about to be killed, yet no one was doing anything dangerous, except the guy hanging over the edge. One wrong move would have been fatal and Illya wasn't at all happy with the way Damien had suddenly just shown up. There was something about the young man that troubled him.
A shadow passed before his eyes. Illya reacted and started to sit up, but strong hands grabbed his head, plunging him down into the water.
Illya started to fight, gripping at the arms with his hands, but he had nothing to use as leverage to push back; the smooth porcelain refusing his any purchase. The hands shifted and slammed Illya's head against the tub wall. The water took on a pink tinge as it began filling his lungs. Still he struggled for what seemed a lifetime.
"Police! Freeze!" Underwater, the words had an eerie quality to them, and suddenly Illya's head was released. As he tried to get up out of the water, he could hear the sounds of a struggle and then hands were abruptly yanking him up, out of the water, into the florescent lights and onto the tile floor of the bathroom
"You okay?" Illya went to answer, but the room tilted and his stomach heaved. He was conscious of being helped to the toilet and he emptied his stomach contents, along with a good amount of water into it. Then darkness crept into from all sides and he reached up to welcome it.
Illya opened his eyes and then closed them against the light. "How are you feeling?" asked a familiar voice and Illya glanced over at him through narrowed eyes. Several hours must have passed because daylight was struggling past the window's thin curtain. His partner moved from the chair where he'd been sitting to the Illya's side.
"Lousy." Illya managed to get his head off the pillow on the third attempt, but only after shutting his eyes against the throb that was threatening to take the top of his skull off.
"As well you should. According to the doctor, you were very lucky."
"Yes, I'm feeling really lucky right now. Did the police find anything? I'm assuming they've been here."
"Apparently, someone had pried off the screen on the back window. That's how he got in and out."
"So Chief Ruskin thinks. It was hard to tell. He says that the person was wearing some sort of costume—all black with a hood."
"That's reassuring." Illya struggled into a sitting position and immediately regretted it as the room began to dance and swirl again. Napoleon slipped his arms around him and held him as Illya shut his eyes again and coughed painfully. "Oh, what a party..." He rubbed his chest wincing. "Oh, Napoleon, I don't feel well."
"I know. Still pretty dizzy?" Napoleon offered him some pills and a glass of water.
"It must have been a hard knock." Illya took them and drank the water, wincing against at the tightness in his throat. "I hate throwing up."
"You really had Ruskin terrified out of his mind the way you were bleeding."
"Head wounds do that. Doesn't take much, you know that. What was he doing here?"
"Came by the theater to talk to you and you'd already left, so he came here on the off-chance of catching you before you went to sleep. He heard the struggle and kicked the door in."
"I shall have to remember to thank him. He single-handedly saved my life." Illya didn't seem inclined to move from the embrace and Napoleon started to stroke Illya's back with one hand.
"He dropped off the alleged suicide note. I've read it. It's pretty basic, almost textbook."
"They shaved my head," Illya said as his fingers carefully probing the bump and stitches. It was as if he was not even listening to the same conversation. He sat back and glared at his partner. "Damn it, Napoleon, you let them shave my head?"
"Only the spot the doctor needed to in order to stitch you up. It's not like you've lost the secret of the known world, old friend." He reached up and brushed blond hair around as Illya grimaced at even this gentle touch. "Besides, comb your hair like that and no one will even know." Napoleon guided Illya's head back to his shoulder.
"How reassuring. What time is it?" Illya relaxed back into the embrace.
"Time for you to get a little rest," came a third voice from the doorway and Paul Tesca continued, "May I...ah...come in?" If he thought it strange that the front door was propped up against the wall, he chose not to comment. Immediately, the two men put distance between them.
"Of course," Napoleon said, standing. "Can I get you some coffee?"
"What the hell happened here?"
"Someone decided to try to kill Illya last night. It was only his thick Russian head that saved him."
Illya glared at his partner and muttered something in his mother tongue. Napoleon grinned the suggestion and shook his head. "I don't think so, my love, even you're not that flexible."
"What did he say?" Tesca asked watching as Illya reclined back against the pillows and winced at the pressure against his head.
"Something his mother would wash his mouth out for," Napoleon said, looking up from his task of pouring coffee. "He's not very loveable when he's sick or hurt, sorry."
"Illya, are you okay?"
Illya stared at the man for a long moment, carefully crafting his answer. Finally he settled on the truth. "Lousy is closer."
"I think it would be good if you just stay in bed and take it easy today," Tesca said, accepting the cup from Napoleon and sipped. Likewise, Napoleon offered a cup to his partner, but Illya made a face and pushed away the man's hand.
"Please, for all that you value as holy, take it away." Illya took a deep calming breath.
Napoleon did as requested and turned his attention to the technical director. "What can I help you with, Mr. Tesca?"
"Paul, please. Listen, I just wanted to apologize for my behavior yesterday. It's just that Franklin and I...well, we go back a bit."
"I understand," Illya said, trying sit up again, more slowly this time and Napoleon leaned over to help him. "Shock can make a man do strange things. No offense was taken."
"I know you did your best, Illya."
"I think perhaps it is time to marshal our forces, Napoleon. Will you do the honors?" Illya checked beneath the sheet for his attire before climbing out of the bed. Someone, Napoleon apparently, had put boxers on him. "I need to take care of a few things." He gestured towards the bathroom.
"Will you be okay alone in there? You need some help?"
"Some things are better for a man to accomplish alone, Napoleon. I'll be fine. It was just a crack to the head. If it makes you feel better, I'll call you if I need to."
When Illya came out, his hair was slicked back from a fast but rejuvenating shower and his eyes were more focused. Tesca was sitting on the foot of the bed, holding a pair of matching black wallets. Illya immediately recognized which bogus ID Solo had chosen.
Tesca looked up, then away as Illya reached for his pants and pulled them on.
"Why didn't you tell me you were cops when we first met?" Tesca asked Solo.
"It's standard procedure, for the most part. It's not something we go around announcing, since we're usually undercover, like now. In fact, if we didn't need your help now, you still wouldn't know."
Illya pulled on his socks, grimacing against the pain that laced through his head as he leaned over. He looked over at Napoleon and the man nodded, pointing to the pressed board desk.
"Doctor left them there, but you need to give the ones you just took some time to work."
"Left what there?" Tesca was confused.
"The pain pills Illya was just about to ask me about. I can get you something stronger if you want it."
"Better not." Still bare-chested, Illya went to the window, pushing the curtain back to squint at the screen. True to what the sheriff had said, it had been pressed in from the outside. "Why does daylight have to be so bright?"
"Spoken like a true tech," Tesca said and then stopped, staring at the scarred back the Russian presented. "But you're not, are you?"
"Not before a few days ago. Nor is Napoleon an actor," Illya said, returning to the bed for his shoes. "But this is hardly an unusual situation for either of us to find ourselves in. They send us in for certain situations, when people of our expertise...and experience are needed." If the technical director found the splattering of scars decorating Illya's torso odd, he remained silent. "We are counting on you to keep this information to yourself, Paul."
"Why do you think someone so intent upon killing us?" Solo had retaken his seat by the front window.
"Not us, Napoleon, me, " Illya interrupted. "The attempts have been on me. You were just close the other time."
"You are helping with lighting," Tesca allowed as he drained the coffee and threw the cup towards the trashcan. "And, don't take this wrong, but, Illya, you are the more effeminate looking of you two. Maybe whoever it is figured you'd be the easier target."
"Excuse me?" Illya regarded the man, a look of disbelief on his face.
"He's right, you know, Illya," Napoleon said. "You wear your hair longer, you're thinner, smaller. Fully clothed, you simply don't look very dangerous. That's your major edge in a fight. Everyone underestimates you."
"My hands are licensed weapons in several countries, Napoleon," Illya protested.
"I know that, Mr. Kuryakin," Napoleon said, dryly. "I'm just saying that appearances are deceiving and that's may be the only thing the killer is looking at right now. However that might not be the reason."
"It always seems to happen to that one in the relationship. The one in the submissive role," Tesca said, his mind elsewhere. "Franklin, Yancy, Jonathan...even Paula...they're the other ones who've died."
"I'm not submissive, not ever," Illya snapped, reaching for his shirt, pulling it over his head, and then winced as it brushed against his head. "It has to be something else."
"Putnam was one of our agents and we're not sure that there's not an outside force at work here. The proto type that your friend was working on, do you know anything about it?"
"Not too much. Instead of moving the light, you electronically moved mirrors inside the light. It was originally my idea and then I find out that he's filed for a patent for it."
"That's what caused your break up."
"Hell yes! if you can't trust your partner. Anyhow, it has a couple of wheels that allowed you to change gobos..."
"Little metal discs with images cut into them, Napoleon," Illya said, regarding himself in the mirror. Did he really look effeminate? Maybe it was the hair.
"And colors. It's quite an idea and would be great. The only problem is that it's huge...and expensive. Most of the smaller theaters wouldn't be able to afford it. Miniaturization was what Franklin was beginning to work on when he was... killed," Tesca choked off the last word and looked away.
"There's your probably THRUSH involvement, Napoleon," Illya said, turning back to his partner. "I'd like to hear that transmission again. And to read that supposed suicide note." He began to strap on his shoulder holster, paused, and then continued. The time was past being polite. Someone was trying to kill him and he'd be damned if he'd go down without a fight. The action was not lost on his partner, who passed him over his Walther.
"I'll get the copy. In the meantime..."
Illya pulled on a denim work shirt over his tee shirt, put on his sunglasses and opened the door. "In the meantime, I'm going to do a little recon—on my terms this time."
"Illya, your head," Tesca started.
"Is still firmly, if somewhat painfully, attached for the moment." He slid out the door.
"Illya!" Tesca shouted, but Solo placed a restraining hand on the man's forearm.
"When he has that look in his eyes, I've discovered that it's better to just let him go and pick up the pieces later." Napoleon poured himself another cup of coffee from the room's complimentary pot. "Be it his or someone else's. He's armed now, so the odds are in his favor."
"What exactly is he, Mr. Solo?"
"Just as I told you before, Mr. Tesca, a powerful friend or a formidable enemy."
"He's not going to be happy about what he finds at the theater then," Tesca said, looking down at his coffee cup. "I gave everyone the day off Becasue I was a real horse's patoot to Illya yesterday, I thought I'd make a good will gesture and tell him myself. Guess he'll find that out when he gets there and discovers that everything is locked up. He's going to be pissed."
"You don't know Illya, Mr. Tesca. Locks are hardly enough to stop him."
Illya pushed open the stage performers' entrance door and pulled off his sunglasses. The lock had been insanely easy to pick, but he couldn't figure out why Tesca hadn't told him the place was locked up.
The hallway, normally awash with florescent light, was dim with just emergency lighting. That was odd.
"Hello?" His voice seemed to echo within the concrete walls.
"Help me," someone yelled, the voice distant and muffled. Illya walked in a little further and groped along the wall until he found a light switch. Flicking it on and off proved fruitless and years of training told him that retreat would be the optimum path at the moment. With no backup and no real familiarity with the surroundings, it would be suicidal to investigate further.
"Help me!" The voice seemed familiar and the Russian hesitated only a moment more before pulling his weapon and proceeding down the hallway. The stage right door was propped open with a large garbage pail and Illya toed it wider, using the door's casing as protection. Nothing flew out and after a moment, Illya crept in, keeping his body close to the floor.
The stage stood deserted, dark with the exception of the ghost light. Set pieces cast shadows upon the back wall, but nothing seemed out of place. He was ready to leave when he heard the sob and choked, "Help me, somebody, help me."
Illya was careful to make sure he had cover before asking, "Hello, is someone here?"
"Illya!" It was Damien's voice, but it was high above Illya's head. "Thank God, I was afraid you'd left. Help me!"
"I can't even see you, how can I help you? Where are you?" He holstered his P-38 and hit the work lights. The stage was immediately ablaze and Illya squinted up at the ceiling.
"The battens, I'm on top of one of the battens. Illya, there's a noose around my neck and I don't know how much longer it's going to hold me."
It took several breathless minutes for Illya climbed up the eighty foot ladder to the fly loft. It was a place he'd become very familiar with yesterday. He walked cautiously out onto the grid. The important thing to do now was to keep the young technician from panicking. "Damien, talk to me. How in the name of heaven did you get up there?"
"Paul gave us the day off, but I came down to get my knapsack out of my locker. I needed a phone number. The back door was propped open. That's a big no-no around here and when I investigated, I found the stage door open too and the work lights on. Then somebody grabbed me and put something over my mouth. I woke up here. I...I think he thought I was you, Illya."
Illya carefully knelt upon the steel grating and looked through it. Damien was tethered to the grating by a rope that ended with a noose about his neck. His arms were tied behind his back around one of the batten's support cables. Illya began cut through the hemp rope, his mind racing as to how best to reach the technician. Even if he could get the metal grating up, he was too far to reach from Illya's current vantage point.
"Damien, how much do you weigh?"
"I'm going to weight the arbor and bring you down that way."
"I've untied the noose." To demonstrate, Illya let the rope go and it fell through the grating. "How much?"
"About one sixty, I think.
"You're tied to a support cable, so you won't fall. Give me a couple of minutes and I'll have you down."
Illya picked his way back through the cables and pulleys and hurried down the ladder to the stage floor.
He started to cross the fly rail, his mind calculating the necessary combination of weights to equal Damien's added burden to the batten when a sixth sense froze him in his tracks. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and for some reason Illya glanced out at the seats in the theater. At that moment, there was a soft cough, not from a person but from a weapon and Illya broke to dive for cover.
The bullet whizzed by, slicing Illya's calf as it passed. The agent winced, more from the pounding in his head than from the bullet graze. There was too much adrenaline pumping through his body for that pain to do more than merely register. He was now closer to the fly rail, but with someone shooting at him, he wasn't about to move from behind the black curtain and start hauling weights around.
"Illya! What's that noise?"
"Nothing—are you still okay?"
"Yeah, but I'd really like to get down."
"I'd really like to get you down, but someone has decided to start shooting at me."
"What? Oh, man, I'm never working in a theater again. I'm gonna die..."
"You're too high in the loft to be hit." Illya silently added, I hope. He crept along the backside of the black velour leg curtain to the next one downstage. Another shot rang out and it drilled a perfectly circular hole in not far from Illya's previous hiding place. The only problem was that Illya was running out of curtains. He moved to the last set and lowered himself to the floor to peek out a convenient tear at the bottom. He could see nothing except seats and too many shadows, but he disregarded them. From the angle of the shots, he could tell the shooter was above him and put him on the catwalks themselves. From there, nearly every part of the stage was fair game. His only chance would be to get behind the protection of the proscenium.
Illya eased himself away from the curtain, but a shimmer of movement belied his position and a bullet zinged past the tip of his nose. That was enough motivation to send him away from the black, dusty fabric and into the relative safety of the stage wall. Illya glanced up into the loft and finally picked out the technician. For now, Damien was appeared safe if not particularly happy.
The Russian moved to the door that led out onto the stage wings and inched out along one of the adjustable hanging panels. A sudden movement caught his eye and he retreated back into the shadows.
"It's over, Longley, you might as well surrender," Illya yelled and then changed position. His pants leg and sock were sopping with blood and it had found its way into his shoe. Now he was squishing as he moved, not enough to give away his position, but it certainly left a peculiar feeling in the Russian's still queasy stomach. He picked up one of the ever- present strips of muslin that littered the stage deck and wrapped it around his calf, cinching it as tight as he could bear.
"It'll never be over, not until U.N.C.L.E. changes its narrow-minded views and policies," a voice answered back and Illya allowed himself a smile. He had guessed right, but his selection had been tempered by the knowledge that nearly everyone else he suspected was already dead.
"Why, Longley?" Illya moved back out and tried to find the source of the voice. "Why kill Putnam? I thought you two were a team. I thought he was special."
"Ha! He used me to get status and plum assignments. I did everything to make him look good. All I asked for was a little loyalty and that whore slept with anything that had two legs and reproductive organs. Then you came along and pulled him, just because he looked too good. He threatened to out-shine you and your lover."
"That's not true!" Damien's voice came from above in the loft. "You were stalking him. He told me! He bailed out and you couldn't take it."
A volley of shots rang out toward the fly loft, but Damien was too high and the bullets tore through the masking curtains.
"Don't antagonize him," Illya shouted, wincing at his own voice. His head felt like it was going to explode and it was getting harder to concentrate.
Illya found the agent's hiding spot, up on the lower catwalk, close to the edge, but only marginally protected from this angle. He hazarded off a shot and watched Longley jump, moving back into the shadows of the catwalk. Illya cursed to himself and changed his own position again. From this new angle, it would be impossible for Longley to hit him, but at the same time, Illya didn't have a clear shot either.
Something abruptly occurred to him and Illya stopped just short of slapping himself in the forehead. "What was Tex, Longley? Kenneth Longley—was he our father? Your uncle?"
"It wasn't his fault, he'd been told the area was secure. The lighting tech told him the flooring was safe. The bastard lied to him."
"Maybe the tech didn't know, Longley, did you ever think of that? Maybe he just did something careless that cost him his life. That was no reason to take it out on the others. They were innocents."
"They didn't deserve to live, none of them, not even Yancy." A bullet chumped into the soft pine of the hanging panel. "He was okay until he came here. Then they started in on him. So how did you know it was me, Kuryakin?"
"It just struck me as odd that you didn't seem the least bit interested in our progress or lack of it. You never attempted to check once on our progress."
"The Old Man told me to stay away. You heard him."
"That wouldn't have stopped me. Nothing would have stopped me, not when it came to finding my partner's murderer."
"Then you're much more heroic and noble than me. I followed orders. I always follow orders."
"Illya!" The shout drew his attention and Illya glanced over as the stage right backstage door opened, sending a shaft of light out onto the stage.
"Ah, your lover to the rescue," Longley shouted, using the distraction to send another bullet in the Russian's direction. This one found its mark in the flesh just above Illya's left elbow. "Let's see how fast he goes down." The gun fired twice more and the light receded.
"Damn it," Illya swore as he clutched his arm, trying to staunch the bleeding, then barked, "Napoleon, hold your position."
"Illya, I take it you are having a bit of a problem?" Solo's voice sounded both close and distant at the same time—a trick of the acoustics of the theater.
"Would you care to explain to Agent Longley that an official resignation from UNCLE would have sufficed?"
"Do you think he'd really listen to that? Or to the fact that Chief Ruskin will be here any minute with reinforcements?"
"A good bluff, Solo, but I'm not falling for it. I'm taking both of you out and then we'll see what U.N.C.L.E. has to say. "Wait! How did you get up here? You're dead." Suddenly, there was a change in Longley's voice, the anger being replaced by something else. Fear?
Illya hazarded a glance out from his hiding place. Napoleon had taken cover near the backstage right entrance, so it wasn't him Longley was talking to and Napoleon wouldn't have let anyone else enter the theater until he'd given the all-clear. Illya twisted and saw that Longley had turned his back to the stage and was yelling at nothing.
"I killed you! I killed you!" Longley was shouting, waving his arms at nothing. He discharged his gun twice, but not towards the stage this time. Instead he shot into the soft wood of the theater's back wall.
"Longley, watch your footing," Illya yelled, a split second before the sharp crack. A black shape plunged, screaming, through the air and landed with a stomach-wrenching thump. Illya emerged from his hiding place and limped across the aisle. Bent in half over the seat back, Longley coughed and retched.
"But I killed him." The words bubbled from his lips along with blood.
"Who?" Illya asked, but the question was posed a second too late. The Russian holstered his weapon and glanced back up towards the catwalks. A figure, shadowy and vague, was watching him silently from the lower cat for a moment and then retreated away from view as Napoleon and Tesca ran across the stage and up to Illya.
"Napoleon, there's someone else up there." Illya gestured to the catwalks with a blood-crusted hand. Napoleon nodded and left him to examine Longley.
"Is there...," Tesca started, stared at the broken body. "Can we help him?"
"No, he surrendered to his madness a long time ago. I wonder why we didn't pick up on it." Napoleon said, checking for a pulse. Detecting none, he abandoned the man and returned to his partner.
"Who's to say that we all aren't mad, Napoleon, and who's to say that we don't use that madness to do our job?" Illya asked.
The dark-haired agent nodded slightly as he moved to his partner's side. "Are you okay? You seem to be dribbling blood everywhere." Solo offered his partner a handkerchief, which Illya held to his arm.
"Would you mind tying that for me?" He raised the limb towards Solo, wincing as the agent knotted it snugly.
"Any tighter and I wouldn't be able to breathe."
"Hello? Has everyone forgotten about me?" Damien's voice interrupted Illya and the Russian rose and took a hobbling step towards the stage.
"Damien, just a minute. I'll get you down!"
"You're really bleeding, Illya" Tesca said, pointing to a collecting pool of blood beneath Illya's sneaker.
"I know, but you've got a technician stuck up on a batten."
"I'll take care of it. I think I can remember how to weigh a batten," Tesca said, squeezing Illya's forearm and then he was off, running toward the fly rail.
Napoleon, his head turning at the sound of voices calling his name from the lobby, shouted, "We're in the auditorium, Sheriff! We need an ambulance. We have an agent down."
"I think Agent Longley is long past needed an ambulance. He looks a little dead, Napoleon."
"The ambulance is for you, old friend. What really happened here?"
"I don't know, not really. Longley killed Putnam because he thought Putnam was being unfaithful. He admitted to killing the others because he held them responsible for his uncle's death."
"Ken Longley, Tex. I'm speculating, of course. I am unaware of an avuncular connection."
"Now I know why the ghost's name seemed familiar." Solo looked over to the stage where Damien, now free, was helping Tesca ease the weight-heavy batten back out. "Damien's down. How did he get up there?"
"No idea, probably loaded down here and then raised up." Illya was getting light headed as the adrenaline left his body and pain took its place. He leaned against his partner. The two techs ran up to the agents, Damien taking exaggerated care not to step in the blood drops gathering at Illya's feet. "Whatever Longley saw made him panic and he stepped off the plywood planks and went right through the floating ceiling."
"Looks like the theater has picked up another ghost." Napoleon waved to the paramedics as they entered.
"Somehow, I don't think this is where Agent Longley intended to pass eternity." Breathing was becoming more of a chore and his head was screaming at him. "I'm so tired, Napoleon."
Napoleon slipped an arm around the Russian's waist as he started to sag. "I know. Come on, partner, hold it together for just a few more minutes."
"I hope he hates Shakespeare," Illya whispered and then crumpled completely as the paramedics reached him.
"Me too, old friend. How bad?" Solo asked as the paramedic cut Napoleon handkerchief and Illya's sleeve free from his arm.
"Looks like a through and through," he responded after a fast inspection. "He's going to need some stitches and maybe a transfusion. Oh wait, he's got a leg wound too. Are you okay, mister?"
Napoleon looked down at his shirtfront and jacket, stained with the blood of his partner. "Yes, this is all his. I am...uninjured."
The second paramedic looked up from his examination of Longley's body. "Another suicide?"
"I prefer to think of it as balance of justice," Napoleon answered.
Napoleon stood and walked over to the window. The view hadn't changed from the one he'd been staring out at most of the night. He could believe things took so long here. Of course, this wasn't HQ, he knew that, but still. All they needed was to stick in a few stitches and slap a couple bandages on him. What was taking so long?
"Mr. Solo?" He spun at his name.
"Your partners ready to go now. Sorry about the delay, but the sheriff wanted to interview him before he left."
"He needs some bed rest and I'd like to see him in three days to check on things." The doctor closed the chart he held with a slap. "He's very stubborn."
"That he is, Doctor." Napoleon laughed. "I'll take care of him."
"He's waiting for you in Exam three."
"Thanks, Doc." Napoleon walked rapidly to the room and opened the door, grinning happily as he watched his partner try to struggle his way into a shirt. "Let me help?"
"I don't need you to dress me. I'm not a Ken doll." Illya protested as his arm went one way and the shirtsleeve another. Napoleon took control, easing the limb into the sleeve.
"Stop trying to be a Russian bear, Illya. It doesn't work with me." He started to button up the shirt and Illya slapped his hand away. "Listen the faster we do this, the faster I can take you back to the room and undress you."
"I don't believe you," Illya muttered, but let Napoleon continue. "I'm afraid sex isn't exactly on my mind at the moment."
"Nor is it always on mine, but I wouldn't mind having you tucked away for a few hours. Let's face it in our line of work, knowing your partner is safe and secure is as much an aphrodisiac as Spanish Fly." Napoleon tilted the drooping head back. "Besides, we have a lot to talk about."
"Our future. I'd very much like to have one with you, job willing."
"That is possibly the best thing I've heard in days."
"Better than Larson snuffing it?" Napoleon kissed his temple gently.
"Perhaps not as immediately gratifying, but I'm never been one for short term gratification." Illya sighed again and smiled slightly. "Take me home, Napoleon."
"Come, come, we are friends! Let's have a dance ere we marry that we might lighten our own hearts and our wives heels."
"We'll have the dancing afterwards," Leonato interrupted.
"First, of my word. Therefore, play music." Benedict draped a friendly arm around Don Pedro's shoulder. "Prince, thou art sad. Get thee a wife, get thee a wife. There is no staff more reverend than one tipped in horn."
"What the hell does that mean, anyone?" Ralph's voice asked over the headset. "I keep meaning to ask but keep forgetting."
"It means that he's decided that it's fine to be married. Back in Shakespeare's time, when a man got married, it was often said that he was wearing a belt made of antlers. It meant that a woman had power over his dick," Illya replied, selecting one more jellybean to chew. Once the crew found out that he liked them, they kept mysteriously appearing at the light board.
"That's sounds kinky," Heather responded. "Doesn't surprise me that you know all about that, though, Illya."
"It's pretty much where the term being horny comes from, to my understanding," Illya explained patiently. "Benedict is fine becoming someone's partner, even if it means that he'll be led around by his..."
"Got it!" Ralph cut him off. "I now fully understand that line...maybe more than I'd want to..."
"I'm going to go get something tattooed tomorrow," interrupted Hojo's voice. "Who's with me? Illya?"
Illya sat back in his chair, waiting for directions from his headset. By now he knew the show well enough to not need his cues called, but he waited nonetheless. "No, I promised Napoleon I wouldn't get any more tattoos. He says I look like a billboard for an alternative lifestyle."
"Piercing place is right next door."
"That's a thought, Illya. You could get a cock ring."
"And this would be assuming I don't already have one," Illya said, chuckling. What they didn't know...
"Oh my God, I don't even want to think about it..." Ralph whined.
"Sound 21 go," came Putsy's voice in his ear. "All right, flies, stand by, lights 43, stand by, sound 22, stand by, spots get ready to hit the leads."
"Lights standing by," Illya said into his headset as he watched women and men dance on stage to swelling music.
"Give me a count, sound."
"You have fifteen seconds of music left. Ten, five, four, three, two."
"Lights 43 go, sound cue 22 go."
Illya hit the button with a practiced air and the stage plunged into darkness as the music faded out. "I'm gone."
"Good, give them some blues, Illya. They don't need to fall off the stage tonight." Illya hit the button again. "And we'll count to five, four, three, two, and go lights for curtain call. And let's give them exit music, shall we?"
After four weeks of performances under his belt, Illya was familiar with the drill by now. The applause was generous as each member took his or her bow. Napoleon's applause seemed a little louder tonight, but it was probably Illya's imagination
Heather's voice cracked over the headset. "Benedict tore his pants, Putsy...again. Hero's bouquet is falling apart and the padre needs his Bible looked at. Hey, Illya, Don Pedro was in good form tonight."
"Don't tell him that," Illya murmured, as he leaned back and stretched his arms out. There were only two small pink puckers on his arm and a long thin white line on his calf now where Longley's bullets had caught him. He was ready to get back to New York, even if it did mean a couple of sessions with Fortner to prove his field readiness. "I still have to live with him."
"Is it true you once set Angela Lansbury on fire?" Hojo sounded skeptical.
"Who told you that?"
"Napoleon, in the green room during intermission."
"Nothing was ever proven."
"Okay, Illya, let's close it up and go home. Lights to black out, and house to full. You want to do pizza tonight? Sushi? Thai?"
"Anything's good with me. Who's buying?" Ralph had turned his spot off. "Spot going off head set."
Illya watched as the patrons filed out. "Good house tonight," he said over to the stage manager who sat a few feet from him.
"Hear we're sold out for tomorrow," Heather came back. "I'll meet you at Dante's. Flies going off head set."
"Then it all goes away—thank the stars for that," interrupted Hojo's voice. "Backstage is clear. Props are set. Stage left off head set."
"It's Paul's turn to buy. Do you think we could con an actor or two into coming along for the ride?" From her spot to Illya's left, the stage manager had closed her book and was starting to gather up her things.
"Napoleon? Good luck with that, he's tighter than the town drunk on Saturday night. This I know from personal experience. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. House is clear, I'm going off headset." Illya pulled off the headphones before anyone could make another sexual innuendo. He brought up the house lights, shut off the light board and slowly stood. His leg was pretty good now, except when he was sitting for three hours straight
Putsy pulled off her own headset as the sound system abruptly died with a sharp 'pop'. "You okay?" She watched the Russian hobble a few steps.
"Fine, just a little stiff. I'm still not used to sitting for great lengths of time. Give me backstage anytime. Although I have to admit, the view is better up here." Sitting in the booth afforded the best possible seat in the house.
"Can't believe tomorrow is closing night—finally," Damien said, as he came out from the sound booth. He tossed his jacket over one shoulder. "Where do you go next?"
"Wherever Napoleon leads me. Thankfully, I have the blood of a gypsy."
"We all do, wandering from show to show. You miss New York?"
"Always. After this long, it's home now." And there were going to have to be some adjustments made when he and Napoleon returned. Having Napoleon beside him in bed every night was something that he'd definitely gotten used to.
When Napoleon had hesitantly approached Waverly with their news, the Old Man's comments was to merely huff and snap, "Just make it work, Mr. Solo." That was as close to a blessing as they were going to get, he supposed. There would have to be arrangements and decisions made, but Illya didn't care as long as he knew he'd have Napoleon's arms to crawl into at the end of the day. He became aware that Putsy was talking to him.
"You have the goofiest expression on your face again, Illya, I don't want to know why. I was just asking what you thought of our little theater—all in all?"
"I was shot, nearly drowned and almost had my brains bashed in. Suffice it to say, it has been an experience. I'm just sorry that so many good people had to die before we were able to bring Longley's insanity to an end."
"People are always dying in the theater, figurative or literally," Damien interjected. "If I had to go, I guess this would be the place I'd want to be in."
"You didn't think so a few weeks ago."
"Well, that was different. You know how I feel about heights." Damien laughed as Ralph joined them.
"I think there's a short in my spot," he said to Illya.
"You want me to check it out tomorrow?"
"Nah, I'll take it apart after the show closes." He led the way out of the booth. As Ralph passed the door, he hit the all-off button. It would afford thirty seconds more of light for everyone to clear the deck.
Illya glanced back out at the house. In Row H, two seats remained down and as he watched, the seats slowly folded up. "Looks like you're going to have to modify your story about Tex now."
"What do you mean?
"I think he's found a friend." And the house lights timed out.