A Dish Served Cold
Time plays games with the mind.
One moment I was staring into the face of the man I'd trusted with my life for the last two years and the next I was looking down at his lifeless corpse. Control over my faculties wavered; all I could see in this hazy, drug-induced twilight world was the color red. Red, everywhere. On the walls, on the floor, covering his body. Dripping from the knife in my hand to pool beneath the point of the blade.
I was so tired. He had been surprisingly resilient and it had taken considerable effort to dispatch him, but the drug Thrush had given me was really starting to kick in now, and I felt deflated, spent. Used. My body shivered, still remembering his touches, touches I had once secretly ached for, but which now left me feeling nauseous. Bile rose in my throat and I tried to swallow it down.
I took a faltering step nearer the still form, studying him for what would be the last time. Napoleon Solo's sightless hazel eyes stared back at me, the look of disbelief that had been there moments ago now gone. His hair was mussed from the struggle and, insanely, I thought how much Napoleon would be appalled at having his clothes in such a mess. Blood splattered his suit, his face, but the familiar brown mole showed dark amongst the splashes of scarlet.
Napoleon's face. I had come to love this visage and then to hate it. But I had never expected it to end this way, to be coldly looking at the man I had just killed, with no remorse whatsoever. Just relief after the initial anger, calm after the raging storm, and the drug sizzling in my veins.
I stood waiting, knowing he would come. It was only a matter of time....
Three days earlier...
I hadn't seen him in more than a week. Missing in action—the words every partner dreads. Napoleon had been on a solo assignment. Alone because his partner—that's me, Illya Nicovetch Kuryakin—ended up in the infirmary once again, after gracelessly falling from a second story window.
Napoleon had, not unusually, refused a replacement partner for this latest mission. He'd gone solo before and it had sounded simple enough, so Mr. Waverly reluctantly agreed.
A few days later, Napoleon disappeared.
I heard the news while I lay in the infirmary, suffering from bruised ribs and a mild concussion—at least that's what the doctor had called it. A bump on the head was just a bump on the head as far as I was concerned. I knew from experience that it would right itself if they left me in peace instead of constantly prodding, poking and doping me insensible. So in turn, I made myself a nuisance, requesting information, refusing medication, being surly and irritable. The staff here don't deserve it, I know, but I've discovered from past experience that if you make yourself annoying enough, they can't wait to be rid of you. People think I'm obnoxious by nature, but believe me, I'm obnoxious by design.
April had informed me of Napoleon's disappearance the day following his failure to report in. I intensified my campaign to be released from my hospital prison. However, I only successfully acquired the doctor's agreement two days later, and even then, only after enduring his monologue on the dangers of repeated blows to the skull and the necessity of avoiding such in the future—as if I deliberately courted such abuse!
I went straight home, as per his instructions, and immediately contacted Melinda in Operations for an update. She politely explained that she had instructions not to give out any details to me, but I could be a cute charmer as easily as a cold bastard. Napoleon didn't have the monopoly in that department. Even so, my flattery was wasted. She had no news to share. I coaxed a promise from her that she would keep me abreast of any developments in return for an evening of wining and dining; bribery and blackmail are useful tools in a spy's arsenal.
The following day, three days after Napoleon's disappearance, I received a call from Melinda telling me Napoleon had reported in from a phone booth, was safe and well and currently ensconced in the infirmary, being checked out. I dressed immediately and drove to headquarters, anxious to see for myself that he was unharmed.
I found him in our shared office. He wasn't too bad, considering. It was typical of Napoleon not to stay in the infirmary if he was capable of walking. We had so much in common.
He glanced up at me as I entered the office, a wan smile all he could muster. "Hi," he said simply.
"Hi, yourself. I'm glad to see you back." And I was. It was frightening how much my partner's absence affected me. "And relatively in one piece," I added, noting the discoloration on his cheeks and jaw. "Thrush must be losing their touch. How are you feeling?" I knew the question was redundant, but it was standard practice in our relationship, and said 'I care' without the need for the actual words.
"Bruised. Battered," he replied simply.
"Your body or your ego?" I asked, trying to lighten the mood.
"What did Dr. Benjamin say?"
"Go home and rest."
It looked like he'd taken quite a beating. His face was swollen and bruised, his right arm bandaged—just a sprain, he said the doctors had assured him. His voice was hoarse and his speech slightly distorted, a result of a visit to the dentist to take care of a couple of teeth loosened by the beating.
"Have you been debriefed?"
"What did Thrush want?"
"The usual. Information I didn't want to part with."
He shrugged. "Names, places, codes..."
"How did you escape?"
"What is this, twenty questions?" he snapped. I almost jumped at the unexpected rebuke and frowned at his tone. His face softened. "I'm sorry. Look, I've had three days of questioning in Thrush hands and I really don't need any more."
"No, I'm sorry. You're right, of course." He seemed tense; the air of nonchalance that he usually exuded was missing. I had to wonder what Thrush had done to him, besides the beating.
He rubbed his forehead. "I didn't mean to snap. It's just been... difficult. You understand?"
"Of course. If there's anything I can do..." I left the sentence open. As I said, words weren't necessary between us.
An awkward silence threatened to stretch out too long. I stepped nearer, trying to offer comfort by my presence. "What are you reading?" I asked, nodding at the file in front of him.
"I'm trying to decipher this report." He shook his head. "Your handwriting, tovarichsh, looks like a drunken spider has staggered across the page. What's this word here?"
I leaned over his shoulder, looking at the word indicated by his finger. "Prestidigitation."
"Prest... he performs magic tricks. His name is Simon Shepherd, says he was a friend of Merlin."
Napoleon looked puzzled. "King Arthur's Merlin?"
"No, Merlin the magician. Paris? The mind reading machine?" He still looked blank. "Mimi. You were sent to the airport as a diversion—"
"Oh, yes. Now I remember. Mimi..." He smiled, obviously reliving some unforgettable memory.
"Huh. You remember the girl, but not the affair."
He glanced up at me, looking me over with hooded eyes. "I always remember my affairs, Illya."
I rolled my eyes skywards. As bad as he obviously felt, sex was still in the forefront of his mind.
I picked up the file and closed it. "How did you interpret the doctor's instructions to 'go home and rest' as 'return to the office and work'?"
He stood slowly, tapping the file in my hand. "You're right. Time to call it a day." He cocked his head to one side and reached out to curl a lock of my hair around his finger. "Hm," he said thoughtfully. "You need a haircut."
I rolled my eyes. It was an old subject and one he was obviously using as a distraction. And distracting it was. Napoleon often touched me. Not intimately, of course—he knew the rules—but his touches were usually affectionate and non-threatening.
I removed myself from temptation by wandering over to the filing cabinet and filing the buff folder away. A bulging paper sack on top drew my attention. "What's this?"
"Groceries. Candy kindly did some shopping for me when she heard I was back. Here," he said, handing me a bottle of wine he'd taken from his drawer, "take this." He stood, slipping his jacket over his shoulders, and picked up the sack of groceries. "Why don't you drive me home," he asked sweetly, looking a little more like his old self.
I was glad to, though I managed to give him my most martyred expression just for effect.
We headed for the parking lot. He withdrew his car keys and held them out for me without saying a word. He looked tired. No, not so much tired as bone weary. And distracted. He stood glancing about the lot, as if he had other things on his mind. It was tempting to ask, but his irritation at my questions made me decide otherwise. Interrogations and beatings were par for the course, but Napoleon's usual sang-froid seemed to have deserted him. I wondered once more what else they might have done to him while he was in their care. It was no use pushing the issue with Napoleon. He would talk, but in his own sweet time.
I walked to the car and opened the passenger door, holding it open with a gesture for him to get in. He settled in the seat, arranging the groceries and wine bottle on his lap, while I slid into the driver's seat and started the car.
We drove to his apartment in relative silence. He was understandably tired and lagged behind as we entered the apartment block, so much so that I had to wait till he caught up.
Outside his apartment door, he passed me his door keys. "Here. Do the honors, would you?"
I sighed, but took them from him anyway and passed him the bottle to hold. I keyed in the code and unlocked the door, swinging it open with a flourish. "Your apartment awaits, m'lord," I said, stepping aside with a slight bow and a click of my heels.
Napoleon chuckled and shoved the bag of groceries and the bottle into my arms as he passed. "Cute. Put these away, serf. I need to shower."
I huffed. "What did your last slave die of?"
He stepped back towards me, leaning closer than I was comfortable with. "Bliss." There was an strange, discomforting moment, before he straightened up, winked at me, and turned back towards the bedroom.
I watched him go, mildly bemused. Was Napoleon flirting with me? Surely not. I was out of bounds as far as he was concerned, and he knew that. No, Napoleon was just teasing me, something he took far too much pleasure in for my liking.
I reset the alarms and headed for the kitchen.
As I emptied the groceries out of the bag, I thought about the agreement we'd made all that time ago. Had we only been parters two years? Only weeks after we first met, we recognised and admitted to a mutual attraction for each other. Lust at first sight, Napoleon called it. It might have started out that way....
It was such a close call. I could still feel the heat from the explosion warming my back.
The adrenaline was buzzing through my blood stream, leaving me hyper and oddly elated. His face was scant inches from mine. I looked into his shining eyes and before I knew it we were kissing. To this day, I'm not sure who made the first move. I think, if there'd been a photo-finish, it would prove a draw.
I pulled away as realization kicked in. "We can't do this," I whispered. He was still very close.
"No," he murmured. "You're right. Of course, you're right."
Then his lips were on mine again and the temptation was almost too much. And why not? Why shouldn't I have something in my life that means something to me? Just a taste, just a moment's pleasure.
A moment's pleasure that could cost me my life. Survival instincts overcame lust and I pushed him away again, more forcefully this time.
"No, really," I said breathlessly. "We shouldn't be doing this. At least, I shouldn't."
Realization dawned on his face, as clear as the sun rising. He moved away, taking a deep drag of air into his lungs. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking."
I grinned. "Probably the same thing as me, but I think, perhaps, it would be wiser to curb our... baser instincts, given the nature of our business."
He stared at me thoughtfully for several more moments before sitting back. "You're probably right. Again, I'm sorry." He shook his head regretfully. "Besides, the guards are probably looking for us right now. We should be going."
And go we did, instantly slipping back into our roles, completing our assignment, consigning the event to the back of our minds—for the time being.
One night, over a bottle of Napoleon's best malt whiskey, we sat and rationally discussed the issue. We talked for hours about the consequences of taking our friendship to a more intimate level, and by the early hours of the next morning, physically drunk but mentally sober, we had come to the decision that temptation should be nipped in the bud, and it had for the most part. It never stopped me dreaming about it, though. What I did in the privacy of my thoughts was my business, and no one could take that away from me.
I shook myself from my reverie—and the budding hard-on caused by my musings—and set about making him something to eat.
By the time Napoleon showered and changed, I had my libido under control and a reasonable repast laid out on the table. He grinned at me and leaned close, so close I thought for a moment he was going to plant a kiss on my cheek. "Looks good," he whispered before turning away. I felt myself flush, grateful his back was to me.
"Listen," he said as he sat down and started to pile salad onto his plate. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I'm not going to be much company tonight." It was a dismissal and I couldn't help feeling a little hurt. It was usually our habit to tend to each other's needs, in lieu of the care we should have received, had we opted to stay in the infirmary.
He put down his fork and his expression became pained. "I'm sorry, would you mind? It's just that I have a pounding headache and I'm still sore. I'd really just like to eat, then go to bed. I'm not up to talking just yet. You understand, don't you?"
I wondered what he wanted to avoid talking about, but he was right, of course. I'm not sure what I expected of him. Oh, yes I do—I wanted him to need me, as much as I needed him. To have missed me as much as I missed him. I wanted him to ask me to stay, because it was what we both wanted.
I nodded. "I do have work to catch up on. You, on the other hand," I said as I slipped on my jacket and moved towards the door, "have some healing to do. Rest well, my friend. I'll see you tomorrow. Bon appetite."
As I reached the door, he called, "Hey!" I turned and he was looking at me in a way I couldn't interpret. I waited for him to speak, wondering what was on his mind. Finally, he shrugged. "Thanks. See you tomorrow?"
"I'll call by after work." I smiled and left, pushing the flutter of unease from my mind. Napoleon was fine, he was just tired. He was going to be okay.
I couldn't help but wonder, yet again, what he wasn't telling me. What had happened while he'd been in Thrush custody? Thrush was using psychological torture and conditioning more and more these days. Dirty tricks by dirty people. I couldn't help but wonder how much damage they might have inflicted before he managed to escape. I made a mental note to make certain he'd made an appointment with the U.N.C.L.E. shrink.
I was busy the next day, the morning taken up with catching up on reports and the afternoon spent making arrangements to meet with Shepherd, the magician.
I took a break around 4:00 p.m., planning what I was going to do with what was left of the rest of the day. I would be finished within the hour, and on the way home I'd call in to see how Napoleon was doing. I headed for my office.
It was a surprise to finding him sitting at my desk when I returned after my coffee break. He had the Shepherd case file open in front of him, and he started guiltily as I entered. "I was just, um..." He sighed. "I was just being nosy. I've been going stir crazy at home. I wanted to keep up with what's been going on while I've been incommunicado. Do you mind?"
I had to smile. It was no pleasure being stuck at home. The body may be in bad shape, but the mind remained active and chaffed at the inactivity. It made the palms itch. "I don't mind, but Dr. Benjamin might."
"Only if he finds out." Napoleon gave me a wide grin, looking happier than he had last night. I gave him a look that slapped him down. His boyish smile disappeared and he sighed. "Okay, then, just throw me a crumb to keep me occupied. Tell me what's going on with this magician."
I nodded at the file in his hand. "Simon Shepherd. He claims he has the original plans for Merlin's mind reading device. I've arranged to meet him tomorrow morning."
"Who are you taking for back up?"
I shook my head. "No one. He knows what happed to Merlin and it's made him nervous. More than one agent turning up will send him running. His request was for you or me only. And as you were... incommunicado, it had to be me."
He sat back in his chair, closing the file. "Why don't I go? It sounds simple enough."
"Hm, so did that last assignment you went on, remember? Besides, you're supposed to be resting up."
He looked thoughtful for a moment, then stood decisively. "You're right." He turned, taking his jacket off the peg, then pausing to comb his hair, checking his appearance in the mirror. While he was occupied, I tidied up the desk. I hate it when Napoleon interferes with my things. I picked up the Shepherd file, intending to place it back in the drawer, and dislodged a pen, which I was too clumsy to catch before it rolled off the desk.
I bent over to pick it up, checking over my shoulder to see if Napoleon had witnessed my clumsiness. He'd paused in his preening and his head was cocked to one side, his eyes focused low. Was he checking out my ass? His eyes met mine. I felt myself blush and turned away to hide it, busying myself putting away the file.
"Here." Napoleon held my jacket for me. His hands lingered after I had it on, stroking slowly down my back. I shifted away, disconcerted. There was that peculiar look in his eyes again. I felt flustered. Had he changed the rules? A part of me almost wished....
"Nothing," I replied. "I'm hungry." It was an old excuse, though usually the truth.
He chuckled. "Which means it's time to quit. Why don't we get something to eat on the way?"
"On the way to where?" I asked, for once unable to second guess him.
"On the way back to my place."
I felt a moment of panic, not sure I wanted to be alone with Napoleon at the moment. He seemed to be breaking our self-imposed precepts. "Maybe you should go home and rest. You're still not cleared for duty. You need—"
"What I need is good food, good wine and good company. Not necessarily in that order. Come on." His hand was on my elbow, strong and possessive, guiding me towards the door, his eagerness for my company in stark contrast to his need for solitude the night before.
As we stepped out of Del Floria's, his hand was on the small of my back, turning me up the street. "I thought we could stop at that little Italian place, er, what's it called? You know the one where the waitress has those big—"
"—earrings." He grinned.
As we walked along, I tried to figure him out. He hadn't quite been himself the last couple of days. One moment sombre and irritable, the next teasing and jovial. Drugs? No, his blood work was clean. A Thrush plant, perhaps? Unlikely, since Napoleon was a well know Lothario and his prurient interest in me was unknown to Thrush. Mind control, then? I'd been under their influence myself, once, but their techniques left their victim in a zombie-like state—unless their methods had improved....
He glanced at me, smiled, touched my arm and looked away. There was something in that glance, something assessing, but I wasn't sure what he was looking for.
"You seem distracted," Napoleon said suddenly.
I glanced at him, feeling guilty for my thoughts. "I have things on my mind."
"Hm. Me too." He winked. Curious....
He didn't talk much on the way to the restaurant and made no attempt to ogle the passing females in their skimpy finery. I wished I could see inside his head. Our usual empathic bond seemed not to be working. I couldn't read him—or his intentions—at all.
As we passed an alley, a woman cried out for help. I drew my gun and darted into the dim recess, grateful to feel Napoleon at my back.
A bleach-blonde woman, her back to us and her hands raised in the air, was being held at gun point by the meanest, if best dressed, mugger I had ever seen.
"Hold it right there!" I cried. Fireworks exploded in my head. The ground swam before me as I fell. Shadowy figures shuffled around me, and my vision darkened.
When I came around, I was lying on Napoleon's sofa. I tried to sit up, but my head felt like a pressure cooker about to explode. I sank back down with a groan and flinched when a cold, wet towel was pressed against my forehead. I forced my eyes open. Napoleon's amused face looked down at me.
"That should teach you not to go playing the hero," he admonished.
"The mugger had a buddy in the shadows. He slugged you good, tovarichsh. Luckily, he didn't see me sneak up behind."
I sat up, slower this time, so as not to disturb the timpani rehearsing in my head. "What happened to the woman?"
"I retrieved her purse, flagged down a taxi and kissed her goodbye."
"You would," I said, making it sound like an accusation. I swung my feet off the sofa, forcing Napoleon to move out of the way. He stood, picking up the towel as it slipped from my head.
"You don't look so good. Let me take a look at that bump."
I dropped my head forward, secretly enjoying the attention as Napoleon combed his fingers through my hair near the nape of my neck. I winced when he touched a tender spot, but missed the contact when he pulled his hand away.
"The skin isn't broken, but you're going to have one hell of a lump. Maybe we should get you to the doctor." He chuckled as my face told him what I thought of that idea. "Never mind. How about a little self-medication?" he asked, nodding towards the drinks cabinet.
I frowned. "I'm not sure I should drink, under the circumstances."
"I wasn't thinking of getting you drunk, Illya. Okay, then, how about something to eat? While you were catching up on your beauty sleep, I made up some sandwiches and I have a nice Chardonnay chilling in the refrigerator."
Food. I smiled. "Well, maybe just a bite. And half a glass."
The improvised meal was satisfying, though not up to his usual culinary standards, and despite my better judgment, I washed it down with a couple of glasses of wine, studiously avoiding Napoleon's gaze as he watched me eat. He looked hungry, and I wasn't sure he had dinner on his mind. As I finished the last crumb, I sat back and sighed. Napoleon stood, picking up my plate as he passed, and trailed a hand along my shoulders.
I shivered, though the temperature was warm for the time of year. I stood, intending to move away from the table, but as I turned, Napoleon blocked my way. He had that superior, smug look I've seen in his eyes moments before he makes a move on a woman. I froze as he leaned towards me, and stopped him with a hand on his chest.
He sighed, but didn't move away. "Why not?"
"Because... we agreed." What I really wanted to say was 'because you're irresistible and I'm feeling weak.' I pressed him back with a firm hand until he took the hint.
"I know, it's just that... the way you look, sometimes..." He shook his head.
I wasn't sure what was going on in his head, but thought it prudent to remove myself from temptation—his and mine. "Maybe I should go."
He stepped back, out of my space. "No, I'm sorry. Please don't leave. At least, finish your drink."
It didn't sound like a good idea and he must have sensed my reluctance. He said, "I have canolli in the refrigerator."
Hm. I hated to have dinner without a dessert chaser. It was tempting, to say the least. But two temptations in the same room. I wasn't sure I was strong enough. Both were irresistible. I wavered and he added, "With vanilla cream."
I caved. What would it hurt? It wasn't as if I was watching my figure. And Napoleon understood the rules. He would be on his best behaviour from now on. He would never go against my wishes.
I sighed, and he took that as consent. He pushed me towards the living room, saying, "Why don't you make yourself comfortable? I'll dish up the dessert."
Dessert was all it promised to be, and by the time I'd scraped the last of it from the dish, I was feeling very mellow. He took the dishes away and sat next to me on the sofa. We discussed work for a while, Napoleon asking most of the questions, while I tried to steer the conversation around to his last assignment. His answers, however, were short and vague. As I listened to him talk, I found my mind wandering.
Napoleon leaned forward to refill my glass, but I shook my head and put my hand over the rim to prevent it. Instead, he asked to check my head wound again and even gave me a quick neck massage. Napoleon was very attentive—well, he was always caring and considerate, especially if I'd been hurt—but this attention bordered on the intimate. His touches were over-familiar, his words laced with innuendo and his eyes... the way he looked at me sometimes left me feeling all but naked.
And yet, I chose to ignore the alarm bells ringing quietly at the back of my mind.
As he smiled provocatively at me, I decided to move further away from his lure, and shuffled into a better position on the sofa without appearing to be putting distance between me and temptation.
And temptation it was, only an arm's length away. It was looking at me now, daring me, teasing me. I shook my head to clear it. The mellowness following dessert was turning into drowsiness and I was starting to feel groggy.
I decided it was time to leave. I leaned forward, tipped the remains of my drink down my throat and stood. "I should be going." But as I took a step forward, the room tilted and I held out my arms to keep my balance.
Napoleon was immediately by my side. "Hey, are you okay? Maybe you should sit down. You don't look too good."
"No, 'm fine." My tongue refused to work properly—I didn't have that much to drink, surely. Perhaps it was a delayed reaction.
As if reading my mind, Napoleon said, "You took quite a knock today, and just a few days after your last concussion. I don't think you're in a fit state to leave. Maybe you should stay here tonight so I can keep an eye on you."
It wasn't an unusual offer; we often spent the night at each other's apartments, taking care of each other, either because of injury or simply out of sheer exhaustion. But for some reason, I felt that this night was different, and perhaps temptation might be easier to control if a little distance was put between us. "S'alright," I mumbled, irritated at my inability to speak coherently. I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head, but it wouldn't clear.
"I won't hear of it. You're staying, and that's that."
He pushed me ahead of him into the master bedroom. A part of me thought it odd. If either of us were ill—or occasionally just too tired or drunk to go home—it was customary to sleep in the spare room. I wanted to ask him why, but my mouth refused to cooperate.
Lethargy made me passive and I didn't resist when his fingers made light work of the buttons on my shirt. I wanted to tell him I could undress myself—only, apparently I couldn't. My hands rose to make the effort, but fell back to my side, useless, heavy appendages. I could only stand and watch, fascinated by Napoleon's dexterous hands. He tugged my shirt from my shoulders and ran his hand over my chest. I closed my eyes, relishing the feeling, and couldn't stifle a groan as he unbuttoned my fly, his hands caressing my thighs as my pants were pushed to the floor along with my underwear. I opened my eyes as he guided me onto the bed.
The bed was soft, warm and inviting. I snuggled down, grateful for an anchor in the dizziness that fogged my mind. The sheets surrounded me, giving me a sense of security, like being in the womb. The feeling of well-being made me light-headed and relaxed.
I felt the bed dip beside me and realised Napoleon had slipped between the sheets, too. I smiled as his arms surrounded me, shivered as his teeth lightly bit at the nape of my neck. He gently turned me onto my back and I couldn't resist even if I'd wanted to.
His face hovered above mine, studying me, his face intent and serious. I moved my hand up, though it felt like my arm was made of lead, and tried to touch that enticing mole on his cheek. He intercepted my hand before I could reach my goal and held it above my head.
I kept drifting, floating dreamlike on a combination of mild euphoria and lethargy. Napoleon was making his way down my body, kissing, licking, nibbling, and I felt myself responding. A dim and distant part of my mind tried to recall why this was wrong, but the pleasure was all-consuming. My mind, however, kept drifting into limbo and each time I floated back into a sort of awareness, the action seemed to have moved on, like a badly spliced movie.
I blanked out again, and this time, when my consciousness returned, I was on my stomach and there was a vague ache in my bottom. I tried to move away from it, but Napoleon had his hands around my wrists, which were trapped above my head. "Shhh, baby, keep still."
The sensation of rocking was oddly soothing, though the part of my mind that still functioned nagged at me. It was a disturbing feeling. A feeling that I should know something, and that something was on the tip of my tongue, but kept slipping from my grasp like a greased pole. And every time I tried to reach for it, the euphoric fog drew me away.
Eventually I gave in to it. The pleasure and exhaustion overwhelmed me, pushing me into the oblivion of unconsciousness.
I woke with a pounding headache and a deep sense of loss, though I couldn't explain the feeling. I lay there a moment, waiting for the jumble of images and memories to coalesce into something recognisable.
I threw back the sheets, needing the toilet, and a soreness in my backside pulled me up short. It was a painful reminder of the previous night's activities, vague as they were. I rose slowly, pausing a moment till the queasiness in my stomach eased a little, and made my way to Napoleon's bathroom. As I got to the hallway I called out his name. There was no reply; Napoleon wasn't home.
My reflection in the mirror showed bruises around my chest and neck. How gauche of Napoleon. How was I going to hide those when I returned to work? I rested my head against the cool of the mirror.
The nausea I was experiencing increased and I had to dive for the toilet as my stomach suddenly regurgitated the previous night's meal. When the spasms died, I closed the toilet lid and sat, holding my pounding head in my clammy hands.
We'd had sex, of that much my body was certain, even though the images of last night were disjointed and shifting. Why had he done it? There had been no tenderness that I could recollect. I'd merely been an empty vessel, there for his pleasure and use. I was puzzled, now, recalling my sudden submissiveness, as if I'd had no choice in the matter. His touches, so sure and yet, somehow, unfamiliar. 'Baby.' He'd called me 'Baby.' I'd never heard him use that term, not even to one of his string of females.
The final slap to the face, however, was his disappearance this morning; no breakfast, no note. A sharp contrast to the concern he'd shown before my incapacity last night.
But utmost in my mind was one disquieting thought: would Napoleon have taken advantage of me—of anyone—in such a situation? To have sex with someone insensible? That in itself was disturbing—it had been just sex, not loving, and I know with Napoleon it would be an act bordering on worship.
Something wasn't right. I cleaned my teeth and dressed quickly. I was out of the door in record time.
On the drive to HQ, I replayed what little I could remember of the previous night. The blank spaces in my memory had me worried. A knock on the head might account for some memory loss, but not the fading in and out that I experienced. Drugs would, though—but why would Napoleon drug me?
The answer to that question was obvious—he wouldn't!
I drove to headquarters, my head still pounding and my guts churning. My first stop should have been medical, but I needed to find him first, I needed to confront him, confirm or confute my suspicions. I headed towards our shared office.
Raul Ramirez was sitting at my desk when I walked in. He looked up at me, puzzled. "What are you doing here?"
I moved forward, frowning down at him. "Shouldn't that be my question?"
Ramirez stood, picking up a handful of files. "Napoleon asked me to finish these up for you. He said you wouldn't be in today. Said you took a knock on the head yesterday that left you seeing double."
His words only served to perturb me further and I frowned as I stepped around the desk, effectively unseating him. "I'm fine, as you can see. Now, if you don't mind...."
"No problem." Ramirez shrugged, happy to be out of my presence, I'm sure, as he moved towards the door.
"Wait! What time did he leave?"
"About an hour ago," he answered, as abrupt with his reply as I had been with my question.
"Did he say where he was going?"
"To meet that magician. He said you were under the weather and he was taking your place." He paused, waiting to see if I'd ask him any further questions, but my mind was already elsewhere. I was grateful he wouldn't linger—Ramirez and I were equally inadequate when it came to social interaction. Once the door closed, I leaned forward, resting my head in my hands, trying to think through the cotton candy that still seemed to be clogging my mind.
Ramirez' words came back to me—seeing double. How interesting that Napoleon should use that phrase, for instantly that nagging feeling surfaced in the back of my mind once again. Seeing double....
Damn it, was it possible? Had Thrush used a Solo duplicate? The more I thought about the possibility that Napoleon had been replaced, the more it became a conviction. He'd been acting out of character lately. The looks, the mood swings—I'd put it down to stress and the beating he'd received, as I was no doubt intended to do. If this was a doppelganger, how arrogant, how confident he was. So sure of himself. So sure of me, too. I groaned as realisation set in. So sure that Napoleon and I were attracted to each other. Had it been so obvious? It occurred to me this morning's 'hangover' felt more like a chemical-induced headache—and I'd experienced enough of those to be an expert on the subject.
But if that was a phony, where was the real Napoleon? And more to the point, was he still alive?
There was only one thing for it—I needed to track the doppelganger in order to find out what happened to the original. Which meant I had to make the pick-up point pretty damned quick.
By the time I made it to the meeting place, I was too late to save Shepherd—as I opened the door, I heard a gun discharge, reverberating around the hollow shell of the old, abandoned warehouse. The magician lay dead, ignominiously face down in a muddy puddle stained scarlet by his blood. The phony Napoleon stood looking down at his handiwork, his weapon held loosely in his left hand. I drew my Special and stepped out of the shadows. "Don't move."
He pivoted slowly to face me, holding his arms out. "Well, well, blondie. That's quite a constitution you've got there." He chuckled and the sound raised the hairs on the back of my neck. His accent was now a casual southern drawl. "I thought I gave you enough to knock you out till I finished business here."
"Just shows how little you actually know about me." I stepped nearer. "Drop the gun." He stooped to lay it at his feet.
"I must say I'm impressed. I had hoped to be out of here and back in Thrush Headquarters before you woke up."
"I'm sorry if I've ruined your plans," I replied, not sorry at all.
"Oh, they're not ruined. Just delayed a tad." He smirked at me, his gaze almost physical as it slid over my body. "Shame, though. I was kinda hoping to get a repeat performance when I got back."
My finger tightened on the trigger. But that wouldn't do; he had information that I needed. "Where's Napoleon Solo?"
He chuckled unpleasantly. "Putting personal relationships before the job? Tut-tut. Your Mr. Waverly would be very disappointed."
"Oh, I intend to retrieve the plans from you. Just as soon as you tell me where Napoleon is."
His head cocked to one side in a disturbingly familiar gesture, but the tone of his voice changed to something sinister. "You wanna search me, blondie?" He stepped nearer. "Now, that I look forward to."
I took a step back. It wouldn't do to shoot the bastard too soon. "Stay where you are!"
"Or what? If you shoot me, you'll never find out what happened to your partner."
I took another step back as he got closer. "I'm warning you—"
I stopped mid-sentence when the feel of cold metal touched the side of my neck and the smell of gun oil told me that I was in big trouble. I looked cautiously over my shoulder, straight into the amused face of Angelique, two Thrush goons joining her from the shadows. "Mr. Kuryakin. You have an annoying habit of turning up at the wrong time."
Angelique! I should have know—I thought the bleach-blond in the alley looked familiar.
The Special was tugged from my fingers. I hoped they were taking me to the same place they were keeping my partner.
If I had a dollar for every time I've been tied to a chair, I'd be able to give up the spy business for good. I stopped struggling as soon as the bonds were tightened—it was a waste of energy I could ill afford at the moment. Instead, I sat watching as this arrogant facsimile of my partner strutted about, full of his own self-importance. He came to a stop before me, leaning forward, his hands resting on his knees so he was close to my face.
"Let's see," he said. "I have the plans, I have Solo... and now I have you. Not a bad end to the day, hm?"
"The day isn't over yet," I sneered, matching him stare for stare until he broke eye contact and turned away. He walked over to a small refrigerator in the corner and pulled it open, removing a tray of small glass vials from inside. He picked one, replaced the rest, and turned back towards me, rotating the vial in his fingers as he approached.
"If you only knew what I'd done to prepare for this, tovarichsh, I think you'd be impressed. Surgery, practicing his voice and mannerisms for days on end, hours spent watching film of the two of you interact."
"The beating," I suggested.
"Ah, yes, even a beating. I felt it necessary. After all, it would be more suspicious if he'd returned unharmed, wouldn't it? And it helped to cover any little discrepancies in behavior I may have missed. Needless to say, the employee who had the privilege of giving me the bruises suffered a worse fate afterwards. So, as you can see, I've invested too much to let it all go to waste. After I pass the plans to Thrush, I'll report back to your Mr. Waverly. Distressed, of course, by the demise of my very dear partner. But I'll be brave and try to get back to work, if only for a short time. I can do a lot of damage during my tenure there."
I rolled my eyes heavenward. I'm not sure what compels madmen and villains to divulge their plans. Sheer arrogance, I suspect—and a captive audience helps, of course. As plans go, this one was fairly predictable. "You could have disposed of me any time. Why wait?"
"There were some things about him research couldn't dig up. The code to his apartment, for instance. You were very helpful, by the way. Thank you, blondie." He actually had the gall to look pleased.
I stared at this poor imitation of my partner and snarled, "Beware of cheap imitations. You don't come close. I should have noticed sooner."
"Which is one of the reasons I arranged that little bump on the head. I knew it was only a matter of time. I could only hide beneath the bruises for so long."
"Where is my partner?"
"Oh, he's quite near." He chuckled, pleased with himself. "Just down the corridor, in fact."
I felt a modicum of relief. "He's alive."
Napoleon's doppelganger smiled, but this time there was no resemblance to my partner. This smile was cocky and shark-like. He knew he had me at a disadvantage. "For the time being. I had my orders. Seems Angelique wanted him intact." He leaned forward, and his smile turned into a leer. "She said I could do what I wanted with you, though. I'm looking forward to a repeat of last night's activities. I was disappointed to realise I wasn't your first, sweetheart. Tell me, who popped your cherry for you, blondie, hm? Your partner?"
My virginity and I parted company a long time ago. I'd had sex infrequently since, and not always with my consent, but I've never slept with my partner—except in my most private fantasies.
He made a lewd show of licking his lips and the sight of it made me feel sick, vague memories of the night before replaying in my mind. I tried not to let him see my discomfort and was grateful when one of his men came in and he turned away, irritated at the interruption.
There was fear in the minion's eyes as my captor strode over to him. He listened to the goon's hurried words then viciously backhanded him. "What do you mean, he's escaped!"
My heart leapt—Napoleon.
"I've ordered the men to search the area, sir. We'll get him back."
The imposter leaned in close to the nervous man. "You'd better. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when Angelique gets back. Now, get out!" As the guard reached the door, my captor called out, "And I don't want to be disturbed further!"
He turned back towards me, visibly making an effort to get himself under control. "Now, where were we?"
I tutted loudly, satisfied at the flash of anger in his face. "Two Napoleons on the loose. I know which one my money's on."
He strode over to me, slapped me hard across the face. "You'll only be seeing one before you die!" He turned on his heel, pulled open a drawer and took out a syringe. "But before you buy the farm, we're going to have lots of fun, you and me. Well..." He chuckled, his mood changing suddenly. "Maybe just me. And if you're very good, perhaps I'll let you live a little longer."
He filled the syringe from the vial and I groaned inwardly. I hated injections. My pain threshold wasn't as high as some believed—I just hid it well.
"This is another of my home-made concoctions, somewhat less pleasant, I'm afraid, than the one I slipped into your dessert last night. This one is stronger and won't give you any highs, but it will make you compliant." He stood to one side, ripping my shirt sleeve to expose the skin. "Life, my dear Russian, is all about attaining satisfaction. Yours is in a job well done. Mine is, shall we say, of a more carnal nature." He pressed the needle into my upper arm and depressed the plunger. Maddeningly, he patted my cheek. "Call it the perks of the job."
I let my anger build up, knowing from experience that adrenaline can dilute or delay the effects of some drugs. As this one began to burn through my veins, I let my head drop forward, feigning drowsiness. He leaned over and said, "Let's get rid of these and have some fun, shall we?"
The ropes tightened as he pressed the knife against them, its sharpness slicing through the cords like piano wire through cheese.
As soon as the ropes fell away, I brought my head up, breaking his nose with a satisfying crunch. While he was stunned, I caught his wrist, twisting it and pulling the knife free. He screamed and made a grab for the knife. I pulled it back, feeling it bite deep along his palm, satisfied at the gasp of pain that accompanied the splash of blood.
He ran at me again, heedless of his injury, so sure he had the upper hand. I staggered back as he hit me in the head, and though the drug was fighting me, I managed to swing my hand upwards, pushing the knife into his side.
He charged me and I stumbled backwards. My head connected with the brickwork and the room spun. He fought hard; a knee to the groin, a fist in the gut, a head butt in the face. I didn't feel a thing—the pain would come later. My brain was telling me to give up and let go.
But I couldn't give up; Napoleon would be furious with me.
I pulled the knife free from his side and began to jab anywhere I could. The drug was starting to win. I felt myself losing control over my limbs, my mind starting to fog. I had to make a last concerted effort to end this man's life. With both hands I pushed the knife deep into his chest and, with my last ounce of strength, sliced it sideways along a rib.
The knife came free as he tottered backwards and he gurgled, blood replacing the air in his lungs. Drained of energy, I watched impassively as he clutched at the gaping wound in his chest. At last, his hands fell to his sides and the life finally flickered out of his eyes. I stepped forward and pushed—he toppled backwards to the floor like a felled tree.
I sucked in a deep breath, as though it had been the first in a long time. Maybe it had.
And I waited—as if I had a choice—looking down at the face of my partner.
I heard movement behind me, but the fight, and any remaining energy, had dissipated. I stood still, powerless to move, unable to take my eyes from the body on the floor. So like Napoleon in so many ways, but not in the ways that made my partner unique. Ways that, if I'm being honest, I had noticed but chose to ignore. Lust can be a great motivator.
Someone was beside me now, but it was too difficult for me to look up. A hand tugged at the knife in my grasp, but my fingers seemed locked around the handle. A beautiful and familiar voice gently coaxed, "Let go, Illya. It's over. He's dead."
I found if I concentrated hard I could will my fingers to relax a little, but it was near impossible, the drug making control difficult. Anger still bubbled in my veins, and despite the Thrush drug, I fought hard to control it. The knife was pulled from my hand and I heard it clatter against the wall as it was thrown away across the room.
Then someone was standing before me, blocking my view of the bloody carnage on the floor. The sight of Napoleon's imitation was replaced by the genuine article: Napoleon Arturo Solo, in the flesh. Alive, if somewhat the worse for wear. I tried to focus on him, attempting to blink away the dizziness and disorientation. Gentle hands lightly cupped my face as he leaned closer. Ah, that was better. I could see his eyes, now, and all the worry and concern that etched itself on his face.
"Illya." He said my name softly, then again more firmly. I try to respond, to find my voice and answer him, but though my lips moved, the jumbled words in my mind found no egress.
His arm slipped about my waist as he guided me back to the chair, and I sat obediently when he pushed down on my shoulders. His hands—his hands—moved quickly over my limbs and torso. Not as the fake one had done, with lust and intent, but as only my partner would, checking for wounds, efficiently and quickly. I winced each time his fingers found a cut or bruise, and each time I winced, he apologised. Gentle fool.
"I found their communications room," he said. "I managed to get a message out and help's on the way. I've locked and barricaded the door. With luck, we can hold out till the cavalry arrives." He guided my face up, pinning me with his eyes. "Illya, you do know this is me, right? Illya?"
I tried to reply, but I needed to sleep. My eyes were heavy, like lead weights, and the sounds around me were dwindling. I sighed and gave in to it.
I awoke with a sense of peace, staring up at a clean white ceiling—not the sterile white of the infirmary, but familiar nevertheless. I turned my head to check out my surroundings. The beautiful burr walnut furniture in the room was Napoleon's. Such a relief. My relief, however, was short-lived as nausea overwhelmed me and I leaned over the side of the bed, and heaved into the plastic bucket helpfully left there. The retching seemed to go on forever, and I didn't notice, at first, the comforting hand rubbing lightly over my back. When my stomach had finished trying to eject itself from my body, I lay back, breathing lightly.
The bed dipped as Napoleon sat beside me, a glass of water in his hand. "Here, rinse out your mouth." It seemed like good advice. I took a mouthful, swished it around my gums, leaned over and promptly commenced throwing up again.
"Doc said you might feel sick for a while. At least, till the drugs dissipate from your system."
"I know," I replied, leaning cautiously back. "I have been drugged before."
"I know, sorry."
He looked it, too. I'd hurt his feelings. "No, I'm sorry. You know how grouchy I can get."
He smiled. "Oh, yes, I know. That was one of the arguments I used to get you out of medical and back home." His hand was cool against the side of my face. "I guess there's no point asking how you feel?"
Absolutely none. I'd say 'fine' and he wouldn't believe me. I said it anyway.
He shook his head and chuckled at my predictability. "Think you could keep down a cup of tea and some toast?"
I nodded, but as he stood to leave, I had a moment of panic. "Napoleon, wait!"
He paused in the doorway. I wasn't sure what I wanted to say, I just knew I didn't want him to go. There were things I needed to get off my chest. He came back when I didn't speak and sat by my side. He chewed on his lip a moment. "Illya, you do know this is me, right?"
I was stopped from making a joke by the concern in his eyes. Yes, I was sure this was the real Napoleon—but the other one had seemed convincing, too. A flash of memory made me close my eyes a moment. "I think I killed him. The other one." Hadn't I? It was all still hazy.
His hand covered mine. "You did, love. And a thorough job you did of it, too."
Love... was Napoleon aware of what he'd just said? I understood in that moment all those trite verses in those sickly love songs; my heart actually skipped a beat. And I realised, with sudden clarity, the fundamental difference between my Napoleon and his poor imitation—Napoleon's compassion and love showed in the little details: a sympathetic glance, a caring touch. My breath caught in my throat as he looked at me with such tenderness.
"I had to be sure," I explained. I had to be sure that he wouldn't return. Some of the details came back to me now. The blood and the effort it took to take the bastard down.
Even so, for my own peace of mind, I had to be certain. I touched the mole on Napoleon's cheek, scratched at it gently with my fingernail. He winced but didn't move away, aware, I'm sure, of my reasons. I let my finger trail down to the dimple in his chin, poked at it, more for fun than confirmation. I loved that dimple; it gave so much character to his face, and he wouldn't normally allow such liberties. The fact that he did made me aware how concerned he was.
While I explored his face, he brushed the fringe back from my eyes with such tenderness that it brought a lump to my throat. He trailed a finger down my cheek. Love shone in his eyes and seeped from his very pores to permeate mine. I reached up and captured his hand, pulling it to my chest. Words were superfluous with Napoleon. He smiled his pleasure at the simple act.
I needed to explain, needed to tell him what had happened between me and the fake. I wanted him to know that it didn't matter, that it wouldn't change things between us. Even though I knew, deep down, it already had. "Napoleon, what he... he did—"
"Illya, you don't have to talk about it. I know about everything he did to you."
"Everything?" I felt sick and it had nothing to do with the drugs.
Napoleon took a deep breath and nodded. "He took a great deal of pleasure in giving me the sordid details." He stared down at the sheets and I could hear his teeth grinding. "He was a rapist. If you hadn't killed him, I would have." He kept his gaze down, avoiding my stare. "He drugged you, to keep you off kilter."
"What he did to you... you know I would never have—"
"I'm mean, it's not that... that is, you and I—"
"If we ever... it would... it would be different. I... I—"
"Napoleon! I know. Stop torturing yourself. And me." Sweet torture, knowing that he wanted me so much. I studied his face, unguarded as it was just now. I loved the way his brow developed that little crease when he was worried. I loved the way his eyebrows arched and his eyes sparkled. I loved.... well, I loved. And he did, too. Our mutual attraction had mutated over years into something stronger. Something undeniable.
It was time to put words into action. I grabbed his collar and tugged him down. He was a little surprised, I think, by my boldness, and pulled back before I could capture his lips. "Illya... are you sure?"
"More than I've ever been." Then he was kissing me, and all that pent up frustration, all that longing, rose to the surface and threatened to overwhelm me.
"This is purely..." I tried to say, in between his light nips at my mouth, "... in the interest..." His kissed my jaw. "...of our working relationship, you understand."
He pulled away, amusement curling his lips deliciously. "It is? How'd you figure that?"
I stroked that mole again, free to do as I wished. "Well, if they try this stunt again, I'll just kiss him and I'll be able to tell immediately if it's you or not," I explained.
He cocked his head to one side. "Hm. Interesting concept. Maybe you'd best check every day. Just to be on the safe side, you understand."
"Maybe I should." He kissed me again and I decided, for now, to lie back and keep my mouth shut—except to allow his tongue entry, of course.
After satisfying my immediate needs—I was certainly in no condition for anything more energetic—I pulled away from the kiss and lay back against the pillow. I still had concerns. "If Mr. Waverley found out—"
"He will. He's omniscient."
Napoleon smiled. "If—and that's a big 'if'—he did find out, he'll just have to accept it. We're the best he's got. He won't change a winning combination because it offends his sensibilities."
"We'll have to be very careful. My superiors—"
"Won't discover a thing. We're good spies. Acting is part of our occupation." He kissed the tip of my nose. "We'll be very, i>very discrete."
I was still dubious. "Of course, you'll have to stop looking at me that way."
"That way." I watched him, amused, as he tried to wipe off that silly grin from his face. "That's better."
"Hm. I'll work on it. Till then, I'm going to give you something you need right now."
There went my heart again. "Yes?" I breathed in anticipation.
He stood, obviously pleased by my reaction. "Tea and toast." He headed for the door. "Don't think you'll get breakfast in bed every time, Illyusha. I'm no soft touch."
"I hope not," I murmured, watching him retreat. I lay back, enjoying the comfort of Napoleon's bed and revelling in my right to be there. Imagining the endless nights I'd be spending here in the future. Imagining what we'd be doing in it. Imagining....
Tut. Till then I'd have to be content with tea and toast. I wanted to get back on my feet, so I could get Napoleon on his back. In the meantime, I'd be content to have him pamper and fuss over me.
I had to smile to myself. Ironic, isn't it? How good sometimes comes out of bad?