The Best Man
There were rumors spreading around U.N.C.L.E. headquarters that Napoleon Solo was getting married.
And this time the rumours were true.
His bride-to-be was an air hostess—when it came to women, it was one of Napoleon's favourite brands. They'd met on a flight from New York to London. Maggie Bennett was a classic English rose, with a peaches-and-cream complexion and a cultured accent that melted Napoleon's heart the first time he'd heard it. On the surface, she was like one of a thousand other girls that Napoleon had dated: beautiful, effervescent and charming. But Maggie had that little something extra that made her stand out from the rest, something Napoleon was unable to define. He enjoyed her company, felt at ease around her, and initially, she'd resisted all attempts to coax her into his bed. For that reason alone, Napoleon would normally have called it a night, sighed 'C'est la vie' and parted amicably. Any woman who guarded her virtue so strongly was usually on the hunt for a husband, and Napoleon hadn't—up until that point in his life—been the marrying kind.
Maybe it was the situation, or his time of life, or that Maggie was more than simple good looks and a pretty fortress waiting to be breached. Maybe it was all these things, and more. All he knew was she was intelligent and witty, and Napoleon was as comfortable with her as he was with his partner, Illya Kuryakin.
The proposal happened one Friday night, after a good meal and several glasses of excellent wine. Back at her apartment, they smooched and talked and smooched some more, and Maggie finally succumbed to yet another attempt to pass the well-guarded hem of her dress.
Napoleon rarely bedded virgins; it seemed almost sacrilegious. There was something about entering a territory where no man had gone before that left him with a sense of awe. He'd felt that way that night with Maggie: overwhelmed, stunned by the experience. The resulting sex had been gentle, yet exhilarating, and her inexperience made him feel protective. In the aftermath, they lay together, sated and on an emotional high. As she lay in his arms, Napoleon whispered, "Let's get married." It took her by surprise—even more than it did himself. Before that night, he hadn't given marriage a second thought. But the moment had seemed right, somehow, and Napoleon realised he was ready to settle down, ready to commit himself to someone and live like normal people do, or as near as damn it for a man in his profession.
Maggie had squealed with delight at his proposal and flung herself on top of him, showering him with kisses as she excitedly replied, "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
They talked about it that night, making plans, discussing the future. Most importantly, they agreed to keep it to themselves for the moment: Napoleon had wanted to tell Illya first, before summoning up the courage to tell Waverly the news.
In the early hours of the morning, he left for home, and as soon as the door clicked shut, an excited Maggie picked up the phone and called her best friend in New York.
"Cindy? It's me."
A groggy voice answered, "Maggie? Do you know what time it is?"
"Oh, who cares," she replied breathlessly. "Cindy, listen... he just asked me to marry him." She held the phone away from her ear as her friend squealed in delight.
"How? When? What did he say? Give me all the details."
"I'll tell you over lunch. But, Cindy... we've agreed to keep it a secret for now, so you mustn't tell anyone. Promise?"
"Oh, sure, cross my heart, sweetie. I'll see you at Bernie's, eleven thirty. You can give me all the details then. Don't be late. Ciao."
Cindy waited for Maggie to put down the receiver then dialled her friend, Carmen. "Carmen...what? Who cares what time it is? Listen, have I got some news for you. But you have to swear to keep it to yourself....."
And so, by Monday, word had spread like a particularly pernicious virus, infecting everyone with a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment.
Monday mornings were never good for anyone who had to work for a living, and yet Illya Kuryakin approached every day he woke alive and in one piece as a blessing. Today was no exception, despite the winter chill in the air and the heavy grey skies that threatened more snow on top of the thin layer that coated the sidewalks.
He strode through Del Floria's door, nodding at Salvatore behind the counter with his customary, "Good morning, Sal."
Sal smiled, his wizened face creasing as he gave Illya a sly wink. "And what a morning, eh, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya paused a moment at the uncharacteristically jovial reply, and glanced back at the windows and the snow accumulating in the corners of the glass. As mornings went, this one was no more interesting than any other. It was cold and grey. He looked back at Sal, puzzled by his enthusiastic grin, but Sal had returned his attention to his steam press, and Illya shrugged to himself as he entered the booth at the back and twisted the coat hook.
Marilyn Booker was on the desk this morning, and looking like the bottom had dropped out of her world. She eyed Illya sulkily and slapped his badge into his hand without a word. He refrained from making any comment; she was one of the few ladies who didn't flutter her eyelashes at him, and for that he was grateful.
He turned and strode down the corridor, nodding at the familiar faces as he mentally reviewed his business for the day. First stop would be Records for some information to complete his report on the previous day's affair.
His route to the elevator took him past the lounge area used by the secretaries and clerical staff on this floor. As he approached, he could hear that the chatter was considerably louder than normal—half the office staff in the building must be taking their break at the same time. His blood chilled a degree at the thought, his body still remembering the events of last Christmas, when he'd been cornered by several of the female staff in that very room. Thrush minions equipped with guns, he could tackle—but women, buoyed by Christmas spirit and heavily armed with mistletoe, were a formidable force he couldn't fight.
He furtively glanced in as he passed, and almost made it past the open doorway when someone called his name. Against his better judgement, he paused, expecting the usual teasing remarks from the group of women.
"Hey, Illya. C'mere a minute," Alison Putner said.
Illya stepped back and stood at the doorway, refusing to enter. He stayed safely in the corridor where he could see the exits and raised his eyebrows in question.
"Is it true?" Alison asked.
"Is what true?" Illya replied, wary of the question.
"Napoleon? Is he really getting married?"
"Napoleon? Married?" he repeated, with a wry smile. Was that old rumor doing the rounds again?
"You're his best friend. He must have confided in you," Alison said, managing to make it sound like an accusation.
Illya considered his answer a moment before replying. "Napoleon marrying is as likely as him taking a vow of celibacy. Please, don't upset yourselves. He would never wish to disappoint you ladies, I'm sure."
"See," someone said, "I told you it was just a rumor."
"It is true," the girl next to Alison insisted. "I got it from the horse's mouth. Well, at least from someone in Travel, who knows someone at JFK, who knows someone who's the best friend of her best friend."
Illya sighed. Rumors were like Chinese Whispers. It wasn't the first ridiculous story he'd heard about Napoleon, or himself, for that matter. Wherever groups of people congregated, gossip was the favored pasttime. It was part of the culture of large organisations, he supposed.
Leana Carlisle, the female equivalent of Napoleon Solo, stalked closer and tugged on Illya's tie. He tried to pull away as she leaned closer, but she anchored him in place. "So, how about you, tiger? You're still free, aren't you? Got any plans for the future? Looking for Miss Right?"
Illya tried to carefully pull his tie free from her hands, but she stubbornly held onto the end like a leash. Illya sighed, resigned for the moment that he couldn't evade capture. "I'm afraid I wouldn't make a good husband."
"Always destined to be the bridesmaid, eh, Illya?" someone said. He refused to acknowledge the taunt.
"Be fair. He is definitely Best man material," Leana said, pouting as Illya made a more determined bid for freedom and pulled his tie free from her grasp.
Illya shook his head and turned to leave. He heard the women laughing as he continued down the corridor, and tried to control his annoyance. He'd always been uncomfortable with females; their thought processes baffled him. He'd been raised in an orphanage for boys, and spent his early adulthood in a male oriented service. He'd had little interaction with the opposite sex until he'd been assigned abroad, where his real education began. Paris had liberated his spirit, but hadn't liberated his aloofness. London had opened up his eyes, but did little to open up his reserve. Only when he'd come to America had he learned to relax, live life and embrace all it had to offer—and that had been mainly due his partner's influence.
Illya finished his business in records and made his way to their shared office. As he entered, a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Napoleon looked up at him as he walked in and couldn't help but smile in return. "Good morning. What's amusing you?"
"I just heard the most ridiculous rumor," Illya said, slipping off his jacket and draping it over the back of his chair.
Napoleon's smile disappeared. He knew, of course, what Illya referred to. He'd hoped to tell his partner this morning, but it seemed the rumor mill had been working overtime, and Illya had already received the news flash from someone else. Unable to look Illya in the face, he returned his attention to the file in front of him. "Ah," he paused, clearing his throat. "It's not a rumor. And it's not ridiculous," Napoleon added, defensively, as he made a rough notation on the report. "Why do you find the notion of me getting married to be ridiculous?"
Illya sat down heavily in his chair. "It's true?"
Napoleon couldn't meet his eyes. This wasn't the way he'd wanted Illya to find out, but it seemed the whole of New York already knew - except Illya. "Yes, it's true," he confessed, finally looking across at his friend.
Illya sat back in his chair, fiddling with his pen. "Is she pregnant?"
"No! Of course not," Napoleon snapped. "There are other reasons people marry, you know."
"I know but... Napoleon, you've barely known each other a few weeks."
"How long does it take?" Napoleon asked, with a shrug of his shoulders. "My parents only knew each other two months before they married."
"Your parents were divorced after two years."
"Okay, bad example," Napoleon admitted. "But I know this is right. It'll work."
Illya looked doubtful. "It just seems so sudden. You know what they say, 'Marry in haste—'"
"I know the old saying," Napoleon interrupted. "And there'll be no repenting. This feels right. I love her."
Illya ran his fingers through his bangs and huffed. "Does Waverly know? You know how he feels about agents marrying."
"Yes, he knows. He found out, somehow, and called me into his office first thing. And no, he doesn't approve, but he can't stop it. Not if it's what I want."
"Is it what you want?"
Illya's voice sounded small. Napoleon looked at a face that was lined with concern. He'd thought telling Waverly had been difficult, but now that he was discussing this with his friend, he felt, somehow, that he was letting Illya down. Illya worried about him too much—hell, they spent way too much time worrying about each other, a consequence of their close working relationship. It was only natural he'd be disturbed. Napoleon smiled, trying to ease Illya's anxiety. "Yes, I think so," he replied gently.
"You think so?"
"I'm sure," Napoleon replied with more conviction.
"Hm." Illya nodded and smiled back. "Well, I should congratulate you, I suppose. When's the big day?"
"A week on Saturday." He saw Illya's eyes widen with surprise and explained, "Well, there seems no point in waiting."
"Sounds like you have it all planned out."
"Maggie's arranging everything. It'll be something small, something simple. And of course, we need to work around both our schedules."
Illya turned his attention to the paperwork on his desk. "What are the chances of Thrush calling a truce that day?"
"That's already taken care of. Mr. Waverly's going to draft in some agents from Boston to cover just for this occasion. I should feel flattered he's going through all this trouble."
"I think he owes you that much."
Napoleon nodded. "And then some. So, anyway, there shouldn't be any problems on the day." He went back to the report on his desk, and looked back at Illya as he remembered something. "Of course, you'll be my best man."
"Best man." Illya nodded. "Naturally."
"Don't be smug. It's only an honorary title," Napoleon reminded him.
"Still," Illya said, as he stood and slipped his jacket back on. "If the cap fits...."
Napoleon's smile turned to a frown as his partner headed for the door. "Where are you going? You just got here?"
Illya turned towards him. "I think I drank too much tea this morning. I need to...powder my nose. "
Napoleon grinned. "Don't use that expression in mixed company," he called as Illya left the room.
Illya found the nearest men's room and went into the first cubicle, locking the door behind him. He dropped the cover down on the toilet seat and sat heavily. He looked at his hands: they were still shaking. He stared at them as though they were foreign to him, alien appendages, trembling and cold. It was the shock, he realised. His best friend, his partner, getting married. He knew Napoleon was fond of Maggie, but he hadn't thought it serious. After all, Napoleon fell in love as often as he changed his underwear.
No, that wasn't entirely true. Napoleon just had the knack for making his dates feel loved. It was in the nature of the man, his natural charm. Napoleon had the ability to seduce even the most stubborn of personalities—and Illya included himself in that list. His own seduction, however, hadn't been sexual—though that wasn't from lack of trying on Napoleon's part. No, Napoleon had gained Illya's trust, become his friend, and when Napoleon had hinted at more, Illya had gently declined. He liked things the way they were—anything else would just be a complication. So the partnership had worked, despite the forecasts of some. They'd become a team, a force to be reckoned with, complementing each other in their respective abilities, melding as one when on assignment. Each and every doubting Thomas had come to admit that they had become U.N.C.L.E.'s best.
But now the dynamics of their partnership were going to change. Someone else had entered the equation, someone who was going to be getting most—no, all of his partner's attention from now on. And that someone would become the most important person in Napoleon's life. It was childish, he knew, but Illya felt he was being usurped, replaced, and that knowledge made him nauseous.
Jealous fool! How irritating that a man renowned for his coolness should be reduced to sitting in the bathroom, sulking like a spoiled brat. It wasn't the first time the green-eyed monster had raised its ugly head in this way. In the past, unable to contain the monster, Illya had sabotaged more than one of Napoleon's dates with well-placed spiteful words. Somehow, Napoleon always took it in his stride, never once berating him for his petulant outbursts, always seeming to be amused, rather than irritated. This time, however, Napoleon's intentions towards Maggie were serious. Illya had been unprepared for the depth of the emotion he'd felt, followed swiftly on its heels by the ache of regret. After all, he'd had his chance and he'd let it pass him by, despite the constant temptation of his partner's closeness. It would never be on offer again, not now. It was too late. Too late.
Illya sat in the cubicle for a long time, his head in his hands, while his mind buzzed in turmoil. When he felt he had himself back under control, he carefully schooled his expression to total neutrality, washed his hands, and left.
Two days before the wedding...
Napoleon was on the hunt. He'd returned from a brief solo assignment in Boston just an hour ago, and was currently trying to track down his elusive partner.
He hadn't seen much of Illya lately. Much of Napoleon's spare time had been taken up with the wedding arrangements, but when he had been free, Illya had always been unavailable. Napoleon was determined to pin him down, once and for all. Tomorrow night was his bachelor party, officially his last night of freedom, and he wanted to be sure his partner was going to be there.
Alexander Waverly, in an uncommon fit of generosity, had insisted that one of the safe houses in a remote area be used for the celebration, which suited Napoleon just fine. He could relax in the knowledge that security was someone else's responsibility for a change. It wasn't often that so many of U.N.C.L.E.'s employees gathered in one place, and if Thrush found out, it would make a tempting target. But this large, log-style cabin, once used as a hotel in private wooded land, would be difficult to reach, and had a state-of-the-art security system.
In the best man's absence, Mark Slate had made arrangements for the bachelor night and distributed the invitations to the party. Napoleon had decided to hang onto the most important invite. Besides, he wanted to be sure that Illya would be there, and for that reason he was going to deliver this invitation personally.
He finally tracked Illya down in the library, sitting in the corner with his nose in a small book.
"Hey, partner," Napoleon said by way of greeting.
Illya looked up, slipped a marker in his book and snapped it closed. "Napoleon. I was catching up on some reading," Illya explained, waving the book briefly in the air.
Napoleon captured his hand and cocked his head to read the title. "Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette."
"As your best man, I thought I should know what my responsibilities are."
"Well, if you'd attended the rehearsal the other day, you'd have found out. Incidentally, one of your duties was to arrange my bachelor night."
Illya had the good grace to look abashed. "Oh, Napoleon. I'm so sorry. I'll take care of it right away."
Napoleon grabbed hold of his sleeve before he could move away and waved a hand, dismissing his statement. "Mark took care of it in your absence. Speaking of absence, where were you the other day? I could have done with a little back-up at the rehearsal."
"I did explain I had an important experiment I couldn't leave. Besides, you didn't need me there."
Napoleon wanted to argue the point: he did need him there. Illya had always been his back-up, his right arm. The rehearsal had brought home to him the seriousness of what he was about to undertake—a lifelong commitment to someone. He wanted Illya there for reassurance, for support. Instead, as he had for most of the last few days when Napoleon needed him, Illya had cried off with some excuse.
"So, where have you been all week? I was starting to think you were avoiding me," Napoleon complained, hating the whine in his own voice.
Illya glanced at his watch and smiled. "Are you having withdrawal symptoms? For me?"
The words were light-hearted, but somehow Illya had struck a nerve. He did need his Illya 'fix.' There was nothing like it to calm his nerves, and though he didn't admit to it, as the wedding drew nearer, he was beginning to get a bad case of the jitters.
"You're my best man. You should be helping me through this." He saw Illya glance at his watch again, and look about impatiently. "Do you have to be somewhere? Again?"
"I have a meeting."
Napoleon sighed, managing to convey his disbelief in its tone. "Illya..." he said, managing to make his name sound more like a warning.
Illya felt the rebuke, and shrugged. "It can wait. What can I do for you?"
"Well, you can dig out your best duds and make yourself presentable tomorrow night. It's my bachelor party."
"Ah..." Illya said, as if he'd just remembered something.
"Don't!" Napoleon warned. "There's nothing on your schedule, I've checked. And Mr Waverly has drafted in replacements for us, so there's nothing to stand in your way."
Illya's nose wrinkled in distaste. "You know I don't enjoy these social get-togethers, Napoleon. I don't play well with others."
"It's just for one night. You can bite the bullet for one night, surely?"
"You have half the male population of U.N.C.L.E. New York attending. You don't need one more."
Napoleon frowned. "Of course I need you. You're my Best man, for Christ's sake. You should be there. Look, Illya, I know you don't like parties, but I'd hoped that for me you'd make an exception." He was weakening, Napoleon could tell. Just another turn on the guilt-screw was all that was required. He almost felt ashamed of his manipulations, as he lowered his voice piteously. "You're my best friend, Illya. I need you with me."
Illya broke, as Napoleon knew he would. "Okay. I suppose if I can withstand Thrush torture for five days, I can make it through your bachelor party for one night. But only this once," Illya added.
"I only plan on having the one." Napoleon tapped at the face of his watch. "The coach leaves at 1800 hours. Be there, or incur my wrath," Napoleon said, wagging his finger dramatically in Illya's face.
The night before the wedding; Maggie's Wedding Shower...
April forced a smile and feigned interest in the proceedings, while at the same time mentally listing all the ways she was going to get Napoleon back for talking her into this. 'Babysitting' his future wife wasn't exactly a chore, but neither was it fun. The group of women crowded into the living room of Maggie's rented house were mostly family and friends, none of whom April knew, nor had anything remotely in common with. Some of them watched her out of the corner of their eyes, occasionally daring to ask the odd question, or attempting to draw her into the proceedings. April answered politely, deflecting queries and participating with the minimum of effort. This wasn't her scene, this all-girl gaggle of exuberant revellers. Still a tomboy at heart, she preferred the mixed, rumbustious company of her colleagues in the smoky atmosphere of a pool room. If she was being honest, she'd be happier at Napoleon's bachelor party.
She pretended to smooth down her jacket, feeling with satisfaction the slight swell on the inside of her waistband where her berretta nestled snugly in its small holster near the small of her back. Napoleon had warned her to be discrete—this was a civilian celebration after all—but there was no need for her to go unarmed. The berretta's calibre was small, but could do ample damage in close quarters, and the jacket covered the small bulge so that it went unnoticed. More than one person had tried to coax her into removing her outer garment, and each time she'd politely declined, explaining that she'd recently caught a chill and had been warned to keep warm.
Needing to keep on the move, she'd wandered the ground floor of Maggie's apartment, trying to blend in as best she could, while trying to be on hand each time a new arrival knocked at the door. April surveyed each new guest, one hand on her waist, within reach of her weapon, while her experienced gaze assessed them. So far, each one had been known to Maggie and greeted with enthusiasm.
For the moment, April stood to one side as they cackled and cooed as each gift was unwrapped, and watched and listened to the group of girls as they gathered around the hostess.
"So, have you handed in your notice yet?" someone asked.
"Notice?" Maggie replied. "Oh, I'm not giving up work. I like my job."
"But, honey, you won't need to work. You'll be married," someone said with a laugh.
"Well, I'll keep working for a while, maybe," Maggie offered.
"At least till junior comes along, huh?"
"Junior?" Maggie asked.
"Napoleon's not getting any younger, honey He'll probably want to start a family pretty soon."
"Oh, my. Junior Solo?" Maggie's friend sighed. "Imagine. I can't wait for the little guy to grow up."
"Cradle snatcher," someone else said, and the girls laughed.
"Hey, Maggie, are you moving into his place or is he moving here?"
"Well, we probably...."
"Have you been in Napoleon's apartment? It's like Fort Knox. He has all these locks and alarms," someone interrupted.
"Of course she's been in his apartment. What woman hasn't?" a girl at the back leered.
"Cut it out, Veronica," Maggie's friend snapped. She turned back to Maggie. "She's just having fun, Maggie. Take no notice."
"Oh, it's alright." Maggie turned to her friend and smiled. "I know he's no saint. He's had more women than I've had trips to the beauty parlor. But he loves me, right?"
"Of course he does. He's marrying you, isn't he?"
Maggie nodded and drew in a shuddering breath. "Scary, isn't it?"
The Batchelor party
It was a party that did justice to Napoleon's reputation: lots of friends, lots of booze and lots of laughter. Though, if he were being perfectly honest with himself, Napoleon wasn't having a great time. And what was more frustrating, he couldn't exactly put his finger on the problem. Napoleon, who was usually happy to be the centre of attention, found himself edgy and uncomfortable for no obvious reason.
Everyone was having fun, it seemed; he just wished some of the good spirits would rub off on him, too. He knew everyone here, the majority being acquaintances from U.N.C.L.E. mixing with the few family members he'd invited and some friends he'd kept in touch with since college. He hadn't realised just how many friends he'd accumulated. And quite frankly, he was beginning to find their presence irritating. As was customary on such occasions, there was plenty to drink, but alcohol had the ability to metamorphose the most amiable of people into the most obnoxious, and the loud guffaws and constant jokes about the 'old ball and chain' were beginning to wear thin.
Someone had wanted to hire a stripper, but to Napoleon's relief, it had been agreed that would be too much of a security risk. Instead, one of the guys from college had brought along some risqué movies and set up a projector in a corner, and currently a group of the younger agents clustered around it, yipping and hooting at intervals. Napoleon didn't give it a second glance; after all, when you'd had the real thing, celluloid imitation held no appeal.
Napoleon looked about at the small crowd. He had arrived here with his partner, but once the party got into full swing, Napoleon had felt obliged to mingle. An hour or so into the celebrations, he'd considered his duties as principle guest to be over, and decided to check up on how Illya was coping. He'd glimpsed the familiar blond head across the other side of the room and tried to make his way over there, but Mark Slate and a couple of other Section Two agents had captured him as he made his move and drawn him into their conversation.
As the stories and jokes flowed, part of Napoleon's attention was on Mark as he talked, while the other part was on Illya, trapped in the middle of a small group of Section Eight boys. Illya seemed to be happy, but it was hard to tell with his chameleon-like partner—he was a great actor when required to play a role, and that was, in effect, precisely what he was doing. However, Napoleon noted that the drink in his hand was constantly making the journey to his mouth with barely a pause for breath. This wasn't like Illya, drinking to excess. Although the lodge was secure, it wasn't in Illya's nature to drink so rashly in public.
Ben Black was asking Napoleon something and he turned his face back to the younger agent, plastering on a smile. Ben wanted to know his plans for the honeymoon. Napoleon put on his serious CEA face and tone. "That, Mr. Black, is on a 'need-to-know' basis and—"
"We don't need to know!" the group chorused. Napoleon grinned along with the laughter and glanced back at his partner. Patrick Riley from Section Two was tugging at Illya's sleeve, drawing him away from the group as he leaned in close, saying something that got Illya's interest. Napoleon continued to watch, feeling the knot of unease in his stomach as he noted the interaction between Riley and Illya. The knot tightened as he saw Riley lean forward to speak and Illya smile, shaking his head. Riley was gesticulating with his hands, using exaggerated gestures to enhance some story. Illya was shaking his head again, answering back in a way that made Riley laugh, too. Then Riley placed a hand on Illya's shoulder, a curiously possessive gesture by Napoleon's reckoning, and whispered something in his ear, causing Illya to raise his eyebrows and smile. It was a sweet smile, one Napoleon seldom saw on his partner's face. What was going on? Illya had only been on nodding acquaintance with Riley before, and now they were acting like old buddies.
"Hey, are you listening to me?" Napoleon started guiltily as Mark pinched his arm.
"I was telling you a joke. Either you missed the punch-line or it wasn't as funny as I thought."
Napoleon shook his head and smiled. "I was just thinking." His gaze drifted back over to his partner.
Mark followed the line of his gaze. "About Illya? What's up?"
Napoleon pulled Mark out of the group and walked them to a relatively quiet spot. "Riley. You know him, right?"
"Yeah. Good bloke. Smart, reliable, easy to get on with." Napoleon already knew all this. As CEA, he was familiar with all the agents under his charge. Riley had been with the New York office for six months now, having recently transferred from the Dublin office. Like Napoleon, Riley was a people-person, with an outgoing personality and heaps of charm. All of which he was currently aiming at Napoleon's partner.
"Mark...is Riley, er...." Napoleon paused, unsure how to phrase his question. "...You know," he finished, lamely.
Mark looked over at Riley and shook his head. "No, I don't follow you. Is he what?"
Napoleon cocked his head and wiggled his eyebrows as if the facial gyrations would explain.
Mark looked perplexed and shrugged. "I'm sorry, boss, I haven't a clue what you're asking? Is he catholic, an alcoholic, a cat lover....?"
Napoleon suddenly felt embarrassed about asking. "No, is he... is he...?" He growled in frustration. "He seems to be taking an unnatural interest in my partner."
Mark tried to keep a straight face as he suddenly realised what Napoleon was getting at. "Oooh. You mean is he a poof?"
Napoleon flushed. "Well, that's a rather quaint English expression."
Mark snorted. "Napoleon, you've got him all wrong. He's not trying to get into Illya's pants—he's trying to step into your shoes. He needs a partner, and pretty soon Illya will be coming up on the market. And whether you realise it or not, he's hot property."
"Coming on the market? I have six years left in the field," Napoleon objected.
"Well, yeah, if you were staying single, but you and I know that Waverly won't keep you in the field for long once you're married; it's too much of a risk. Riley's just making an early pitch. You know, testing the waters. And he's not the only one. Look," he said, nodding in Illya's direction, just as Martinez from Section Two tried to muscle in on the tete-a-tete between Riley and Illya. "See? There's already speculation about who's going to take your place."
Napoleon was peeved: he usually had his finger on the pulse when it came to gossip. He hadn't been privy to this piece of conjecture. He let his annoyance show. "I'm not even cold in my grave, and already their dividing up my belongings."
"Belongings? I'm not sure Illya would appreciate that description, old boy. Look, Napoleon," Mark said, slapping him on the shoulder. "You're worrying about it unnecessarily. This is your bachelor party, you shouldn't be thinking about it at all. You should be relaxing. Last night of freedom, and all that. Here," he said, taking Napoleon's empty glass. "Let me fix that for you. A few more beers and it won't seem so important."
Not important? It was something he hadn't considered, early retirement from the field; he hadn't had time to consider it. Everything had happened so fast, and Napoleon had been too occupied with assignments to really give the future any thought.
He watched the vultures gathering about his friend, waiting to pick at the still warm carcase of their partnership. Well, it wasn't dead yet. When he got back off his honeymoon, Napoleon would discuss this with Mr. Waverly.
In his heart, though, he knew what Mark said was true; Waverly would soon pull him from the field. A married man was a risk, and his wife and any subsequent offspring would become a liability, open to possible attack, or kidnapping and blackmail. Waverly wouldn't give the enemy such an advantage; in fact, if Napoleon knew the old man as well as he thought he did, he'd probably already made plans for his replacement. Napoleon would, subsequently, be given a nice, modern office somewhere in Policies, with a secretary to pamper him and keep him well-stocked with fresh coffee and stationery. And once Napoleon was sitting snug and safe behind a comfortable desk? Who would look after his partner then? Someone who didn't care as much, that's who.
He really needed to talk to Illya, the only person he could talk to.
He suffered the company of his colleagues a little longer, then went in search of his friend. He eventually found him sitting at the foot of the stairs. Napoleon settled down on the step beside him. "Hi. We haven't had much of a chance to talk, have we?"
Illya gave him a sideways glance and gestured towards him with the hand holding the glass. "You're busy. I understand that, Napoleon. This party is about you. You should mingle with your guests."
"I'm tired of mingling. I want to talk to my best friend." As someone came down the stairs, Napoleon budged over till they were squashed against the wall, shoulder pressing against shoulder. Napoleon didn't bother to retreat back into the place he'd vacated; instead, he leaned against Illya, keeping his elusive partner trapped between him and the wall. They sat in silence, each keeping their thoughts to themselves, uncomfortable for once in each other's presence. Finally, Napoleon said, "You're not having fun, are you?"
Illya smile briefly. "Did you expect me to?"
"No, I guess not. But I did hope, for my sake, you'd let your hair down a little. Speaking of which," he said, reaching up to finger a lock of Illya's hair that was spilling over his collar, "I thought you were going to get a trim."
Illya threw him an impatient glance. "I did," he replied testily.
"Oh," Napoleon said simply, obviously unconvinced. He'd witnessed first hand Illya's aversion to barbers. Illya had once told him it was because he'd never trust anyone with a sharp instrument near his neck.
Napoleon felt his friend shift uncomfortably in the confined space, impatient to be elsewhere. "What's really the problem?" Napoleon finally asked.
Illya leaned forward, dropping his head down to stare at the floor. "Nothing. Really." He shook his head in exasperation. Napoleon waited patiently for him to speak, aware that dialogue was his partner's forte. Finally, Illya said, "I don't know. I guess... I hate change, and everything is going to change. Just when I thought...." He trailed off, shrugging, as if that were explanation enough.
"Just when you thought....?" Napoleon repeated, hoping that Illya would clarify. But his partner wasn't forthcoming. Napoleon draped an arm across his friend's shoulders and squeezed. "Nothing will change, Illya," Napoleon denied. "Well, not if I can help it. Hey, we're still partners, you and me."
"Partners," Illya repeated, as if it were the first time he'd heard the word. "But not for much longer."
Napoleon couldn't deny it. "Well, we'll see. Whatever happens, we'll still be friends," he insisted.
"Even that will change." Illya shook his head. "You'll be a married man. You'll have a wife, maybe even start a family."
Napoleon looked down at his feet, unable to deny the inevitable. No more jazz clubs, no more theatre, no more restaurants, not unless it was with his wife.
No, he wouldn't let it happen. He was determined not to give Illya... to give their friendship up. "We'll still see each other."
Illya's smile held a trace of sadness. "When? Birthdays and Christmases? You won't need me anymore."
"Don't say that. I'll always need you," he replied softly, and with an intense honesty that surprised even himself.
Illya stared at him, a strange melancholy look on his face. He was about to speak when Lister from Section Three interrupted. "Hey, Napoleon. Can you spare a minute? I need you to settle an argument."
"Sure," Napoleon said, rising. He leaned back down towards his partner, squeezing his shoulder. "I'll be back. Don't go away."
But of course, when Napoleon returned minutes later, his friend had vanished.
The Wedding Shower
April wandered about the room, trying to look casual while at the same time, trying to keep an eye open for trouble. Not that she really expected any; the group gathered here were harmless enough, and to the best of her knowledge, Thrush had never gate-crashed a wedding shower before.
She meandered over to the front entrance, just as someone rapped hard on the door. April peeked out the window to see who it was and felt the hairs on her neck rise at the same time her hand went to the berretta. The visitor's brassy blond hair stood out under the artificial light of the porch like a neon sign outside a sleazy bar.
April touched Maggie's hand as she reached for the door. "Be careful," she warned. Maggie tensed at her words, and slowly opened the door to her uninvited visitor.
"Bon soir, mon cher," the woman said cheerfully, her smile not quite reaching her eyes. "I do hope you don't mind my calling by unannounced, but I was just driving through the neighbourhood and I thought...." Her smile and demeanour slipped as April moved into her sight. "Oh. I see you already have company." Her mouth twisted as if she tasted something sour.
"Angelique," April said, between gritted teeth. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Had I known you were here, dear, I would have kept on driving."
"Don't let me stop you."
"But since I am here—"
"What is it you want, Angelique?" April kept her hand within reach of her weapon.
Angelique put on her most innocent look. "As I said, I was passing by. I simply wanted to offer my congratulations." She stepped forward, as if to enter, but April blocked her way. Angelique huffed in annoyance. "Oh, don't get your girdle in a twist," she snapped in an unlady-like manner. She forced a smile to her lips as she looked at Maggie. "I just came to meet the woman who managed to shackle Napoleon Solo for good." Angelique laughed. "Of course, I've had him tied up a few times, too, but the little worm has always managed to wriggle free. I hope you can keep a tighter hold on him, darling."
"Who are you?" Maggie asked, not liking the feral look of the woman.
"Trouble," April exclaimed, pulling Maggie to one side.
"I'm an old friend of Napoleon's," Angelique replied, pointedly ignoring April.
"I've met Napoleon's friends. I don't recall him mentioning you."
"Well, he wouldn't, would he," she said sweetly. "But we were once... close, he and I."
"Angelique? This is a private party," April reminded her.
"Oh, is it? Well, I'm not staying, anyway, darling. I have other, bigger fish to fry tonight. But I just couldn't resist stopping by to meet Napoleon's fiancée. I'd like to shake your hand, my dear," she said, addressing Maggie. Angelique reached out her glove covered hand, but April touched Maggie's wrist, preventing her from the contact. It didn't do to pet a venomous spider.
"Don't let us keep you from your fish, Angelique." April gestured with her hand, indicating that she should leave.
Angelique shrugged. "Some other time, perhaps," she said, making it sound like a promise. She turned and started to walk away, but paused after a few steps to turn back and call, "I'm sure we'll meet again. Adieu." With a wave of her gloved hand, she pulled her fur stole closer about her shoulders and shimmied towards the sidewalk.
April closed the door and faced Maggie. "I don't think she'll bother us any more tonight."
Maggie looked unsure. "She said she was a friend of Napoleon's?"
Oh, boy, April thought. How did she explain this one? "Well, they've... crossed paths, so to speak."
Despite April's attempt to avoid the issue, Maggie said, "He slept with that woman, didn't he?" It was a statement more than a question, and one April couldn't deny.
Instead, she said, "Maggie, he's marrying you. Angelique is the past; you're his future. She's yesterday's news, and pretty stale news at that." April gently patted Maggie's shoulder. "Now, let's get back to your friends. You still have gifts to open."
But as she watched Maggie return to the group, April had to wonder if Maggie really knew what she was letting herself in for.
The Batchelor Party
Napoleon had a niggling feeling in the pit of his stomach. Illya seemed to have spent the night avoiding him. Whenever Napoleon manoeuvred towards his friend, Illya always managed to have slipped away by the time he got there. It was beginning to make him edgy, this cat and mouse game. He needed to talk—they needed to talk. He wasn't ready to call time on their friendship, not yet. Not ever, if he had his way. Illya meant too much to him. They had to discuss this, sort something out, come to some sort of arrangement between themselves; one that, hopefully, Waverly would agree to.
He slipped away from the group he was with, weaving between the revellers, pausing occasionally to stand on tip-toe to get a better view, but the blond head was nowhere in sight.
"N'pol'un," someone slurred, grasping his sleeve. Freddy Shaw, looking the worse for drink, swayed like a sapling in a strong wind as he tried to keep upright. He leaned close to Napoleon, forcing the agent to lean away from the overpowering fumes. "Y'know, you're a lucky sonovagun."
"Thank you, Freddy," Napoleon said, his gaze scanning the room.
"Boot...bute...boodiful girl you're marryin'. She have a sister?"
"Sure, but she's married with two kids, Freddy. Say, have you seen Illya around?"
Freddy huffed and flung his arm in an arc, causing a nearby guest to duck in order to avoid a blow to the head. "Went thataway. I think." He gestured broadly, waving his hand towards the kitchen.
"Thanks, Freddy. And take it easy on the booze, hm?" Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, Napoleon thought, as he slapped Freddy on the arm and almost toppled him over. Napoleon made sure Freddy could stand on his own two feet, more or less, before heading in the direction of the kitchen.
There were always people in the kitchen during parties: the claustrophobic types that didn't like the crush of bodies, and those that felt ill-at-ease amongst strangers. For them, the kitchen became a haven, far enough away from the noise and bedlam that often accompanied these occasions.
At the table, Mikola Slovic was piling a paper plate high with nibbles and looked up as Napoleon approached. "Good party, Napoleon."
"Thanks. Have you seen Illya?"
"Sure. He was looking, uh, how you say, green around gills," he said with a grin, his accent faltering around the foreign words. He gestured towards the door. "Went outside. For fresh air."
"Thanks." Napoleon slipped outside, and as the chill air hit his face, hoped he wouldn't have too far to look. It was too cold for this. Illya may be used to this type of climate, but Napoleon was more the Mediterranean type, and his thin cotton shirt wasn't suitable for this weather.
He looked about and saw the gold-capped head standing out like a light against the darkness of the wood pile across the frozen yard. Illya sat on an old tree stump that had been used as a base for chopping kindling. His head was resting back against the wall of the wood store, his eyes closed as gentle puffs of condensed air escaped his lips with each breath. Napoleon shivered violently as he carefully padded across the icy ground.
"Hey, partner," he called as he neared. Illya looked up, startled, his pale face a picture of abject misery. He tried to smile, but the falseness of it turned it into a grimace.
Napoleon crouched down to be at eye-level, and reached out to hold Illya's hands, rubbing them briskly between his own. "You're freezing. Are you okay?" Illya's hands trembled and Napoleon thought that maybe he'd been wrong about Illya being inured to the cold.
Illya pulled his hands away, using them to wipe over his face. "Needed air."
Napoleon laughed. "Not a good combination, fresh air and booze."
Illya did smile then. "No. Is not good," he agreed, his English degenerating as it so often did when he was drugged or drunk.
Napoleon cocked his head to one side, considering his friend. "I thought we were going to talk. You disappeared when I got back."
"Nothing to talk of... about," Illya corrected. "No more to say," he said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand.
"Illya, I know these last couple of weeks, we haven't seen much of each other. And I admit, I hadn't given the future much thought—"
"Except for wedding," Illya reminded him.
Napoleon rubbed at his ear. "Well, yes, except for the wedding. Everything's happened so fast." Like a speeding train gone out of control, Napoleon thought. He secretly wished they'd given it more time, more consideration. He wasn't usually so gauche when it came to planning.
"You," Illya said, poking Napoleon in the shoulder. "Never one to pocast... procast... pro-crast-inate.," he enunciated carefully. "See something you want, you go for it." Illya's smile was a little wan. "Have always admired you for that. I was never that brave."
Napoleon put his hand on the back of Illya's neck and squeezed it affectionately. "Hey, you're the bravest man I know, tovarichsh.
Illya snorted his disagreement. "No, I am not. I am coward. Afraid to take chances, always have been."
Napoleon's laugh held no humor. "I've seen you take plenty of risks, and they've always paid off."
"On assignment, perhaps, where all it takes is recklessness, not courage," Illya mumbled. "Have never been a leader, not like you. Have been given orders and followed them. Is the way I was brought up. All decisions were made for me, all my life. Even coming to U.N.C.L.E.," he added.
The bitterness in his voice twisted Napoleon's gut into a knot. "Surely you don't regret it?" he asked gently.
Illya looked at him, his smile genuinely warm with affection. "No, not at all. Is not what I mean. Though at time, did wonder what they were sending me to," he said, looking wistfully up at the sky.
"I'd like to think it was a better future," Napoleon said softly, thinking how much of a difference Illya had made to Napoleon's life.
"The future..." Illya said quietly, as if talking to himself. "See? Is really what I am talking about, when I talk of bravery. If I knew then what I know now would I have done anything different? Would I have had the courage?"
Napoleon frowned, unable to follow his friend's line of thought. "I don't understand," he admitted.
Illya's smile was wan. "I know. I know you don't. Does not matter. Not now."
Napoleon was used to Illya's melancholy moods, but this time he had the feeling that he, himself, was the cause of his pain. "Illya, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm just... drunk."
"I know, and it's not like you."
"I'm fine." Illya took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his breath condensing in the cold air. "Never should have had brandy. Cannot drink brandy." He rubbed at his forehead. "Will suffer tomorrow."
Napoleon reached out, wrapping his fingers around Illya's wrist, needing the contact. "C'mon," he said, "Let's get you inside before you freeze to death, or forget how to speak English altogether." He tugged on the wrist in his grasp, pulling Illya to his feet. Illya followed his command and started to rise, but unsteady with the effects of alcohol, he slipped on the frozen ground. Napoleon automatically wrapped his arms around his partner, steadying him, pulling the precious body safely to him. "It's okay, I've got you," he whispered into Illya's ear.
Illya turned his head, his lips almost brushing Napoleon's. It took Napoleon by surprise when Illya leaned forward, closing the small gap to press a desperate kiss to Napoleon's mouth. The kiss was filled with urgency and emotion, unexpected in its ferocity. Initially, Napoleon's own response was automatic, returning the kiss as if it were one of his regular conquests—but it wasn't. This was Illya, his friend and partner, and that realisation released a long buried desire that, once freed, burst through the surface of his consciousness and obliterated all common sense.
Napoleon's body responded immediately as desire rushed through him with unprecedented speed. His arms tightened about Illya, pulling him closer, needing to feel the press of his hard body against his own. One hand lifted, sliding into the soft hair at the back of Illya's head, holding him in place as Napoleon returned the kiss with fervour.
All at once, the cause of his own anxiety became clear, and it had nothing to do with wedding nerves. He loved Maggie, he was certain, but she wasn't the one he really wanted, not when he was being completely honest with himself. It was Illya. It had always been Illya, the one person in his life he couldn't do without.
The cold was forgotten as the heat from the body Napoleon held in his arms warmed him like the welcome flames of a fire. He melted deeper into the kiss, his entire focus centred on Illya, knowing the insanity of his actions, understanding the risks, and yet, not caring. This was Illya. Illya. Warm, exciting, responsive, freely giving something Napoleon had only dreamed of. The shivers Napoleon felt down his spine had nothing to do with the chill of the night. The excitement that quickened his heartbeat had nothing to do with the danger. This felt so right, so real.
And the shocking realisation that he could have this and all that it entailed was the only thought in his mind.
The kiss ended, and Napoleon enfolded Illya, nuzzling into the cold neck, rubbing luxuriously against the side of his face. Illya's smell was sweet, familiar, heady. It aroused an emotion that Napoleon had never dared voice or admit to: love.
God, I love you so much...And the words, spoken in his mind, escaped from his lips. "....love you."
His whispered declaration seemed to break a spell. Illya was suddenly squirming in his arms, pulling out of his embrace, and backing away. The frigid air slapped Napoleon in the face with an intensity only marginally less painful then the look of horror on Illya's face. Napoleon watched with dismay as Illya scrubbed a hand over his mouth, as if eradicating the beautiful moment of intimacy between them.
"Bozhe moi," Illya muttered to himself, appalled by his actions. "What have I done?"
"Illya..." Napoleon stepped towards him, reaching out to comfort, to re-establish contact, but Illya pulled away, waving his hands about to create a barrier, his face, like the surrounding landscape, cold and unforgiving.
"No. I'm sorry. I don't know what I am doing. Drunk."
Napoleon watched in pain and despair as his partner turned his back and tottered across the frozen ground, managing somehow to remain on his feet till he reached the safety of the cabin. Napoleon stood for a moment in the ensuing silence, his thoughts in turmoil, his body still aching from the experience. He brushed a hand through his hair, remembering the softness of Illya's on the sensitive pads of his fingers, and wondered what had just happened.
"Oh, boy," he muttered to himself as his legs buckled, dropping him to the wooden stump.
That night was the longest night in Napoleon's life. Once inside, Illya disappeared to his room and eventually, as the revelry died down, so did the rest of the guests.
Back in his own room, Napoleon stripped, showered and slipped between the cool sheets, pulling the eiderdown over his chilled ears. No matter how he tried, sleep eluded him. His mind was too busy going over and over the events of the night. Every time he tried to turn his thoughts in another direction, they inevitably returned to the same topic.
He could still feel that kiss, as if it had left an indelible impression on his lips. He remembered the taste of Illya's mouth, the softness of his skin, the warmth of his body. It was everything he'd ever imagined and more.
And Napoleon had imagined, many, many times in the past. Earlier in their partnership, he couldn't resist the attraction, and in his usual less-than-subtle way, had dropped a hint that their partnership might become more than it was. He'd tested the waters and found them cold. Illya was either disinterested or too naïve to recognise the invitation, and Napoleon knew he wasn't that innocent. No, he just hadn't wanted what was on offer. At least, that was the impression he'd given Napoleon.
How wrong he'd been. How could he not have known how Illya felt? Because his partner was a consummate actor, that's why, and if he didn't want Napoleon to discover his true feelings, then Illya would hide behind his anonymous mask as easily as he wore his other disguises. Only inebriation had made that mask slip.
Why now? A kiss, a kiss that conveyed more emotion than Illya had ever seemed capable of. A kiss that, fleeting as it was, had left a permanent mark on Napoleon's senses. He replayed their conversation, going over the slurred words of his drunken friend. Perhaps that was what Illya had meant about being a coward. Had he dreamed of this, too? Had he been too afraid to act on his feelings? Had Illya lain awake at night, wondering and fantasizing, as Napoleon had in the past? Did he imagine them together, wrapped around each other, kissing, caressing, stroking, touching?
Napoleon slammed a fist into the mattress in frustration. He was getting married tomorrow, for Christ's sake. Why did Illya make a move now, tonight, after all this time? Because he was uncharacteristically drunk, Napoleon reasoned, and his defences were, for once, in pieces.
But that kiss had shaken awake Napoleon's long-buried desires. It rekindled fantasies, set fire to his imagination, reminding him of what he had once wanted—and what might now be possible.
Napoleon felt a tingle in his groin as blood slowly filled his cock to semi-erection. Dammit! He rolled over onto his back and willed it to subside as he stared up at a ceiling that was hidden by the night. He was getting married in the morning; he shouldn't be getting a hard-on thinking about his best friend the night before. Dammit,Solo, close your eyes and go to sleep.
But he couldn't switch his mind off, couldn't stop wondering what might have been if Illya hadn't pulled away from him. How far might it have gone? If they hadn't been in those cold surroundings, yards from a house filled with friends and relatives, if they'd been somewhere more cosy and private—where might that kiss have led?
Six years they'd been partners. Six years had been plenty of time for Illya to make his feelings known. There'd been plenty of opportunities, for Christ's sake. And he chose tonight, of all nights, the eve of Napoleon's wedding. The contrary little...
Even so, Napoleon couldn't help but smile to himself. How typical of Illya, to leave things till the last moment. How many times had he appeared, in the nick of time, to rescue Napoleon from danger? But he wasn't in danger this time—he was getting married.
I am getting married, he told himself. He turned over, punched his pillow into a more pleasing shape, and sighed. Well, he's too late, Napoleon thought. Tomorrow he was going to tie the knot with the woman he loved.
But you love Illya, too, a tiny voice reminded him.
Well, yes, but in a different way, he argued.
In a different way? Napoleon considered the question. Maggie is beautiful and vivacious. Illya is handsome and graceful. Maggie is intelligent and witty. Illya has a seemingly bottomless pit of knowledge and his off-the-cuff, dry remarks always brought a smile to Napoleon's face. Maggie is a good listener. Illya listens, even when there's nothing to say.....
The list continued in his head, mentally ticking of the plusses and minuses, weighing up the pros and cons, until something undeniable and frightening formed in his mind—Maggie was almost a female version of his partner. Had he unconsciously sought out a substitute for the one person he thought he could never have?
Never have? That had always been his understanding, but now, things were different. This changed everything. He needed time to think, time to consider this new development, but time was something he no longer had the luxury of. Still, Napoleon thought, I'm not married yet. A new thought formed in his mind: he'd postpone the wedding for a while, give himself time to sort this mess out and try to figure out what it was that Illya really wanted. What he, himself, really wanted.
But what about Maggie and all the guests? I'd be letting everyone down.
Better a day of disappointments than a lifetime of regrets.
Napoleon flung himself over onto his side. Damn Illya. And damn his bad timing!
They had to talk before tomorrow and get things sorted out.
Napoleon sat up and switched on the bedside light. He picked up the clock: it read 3.20 a.m. It was late—or very early, depending on your point of view—but it didn't matter. He had things that needed to be said, questions that needed to be answered.
He rose and padded down the hallway in his pyjamas to Illya's room. He was about to tap on the door when he heard a voice from within—Illya already had company.
Napoleon silently pushed the door open, just enough to peek through the gap. Light was coming from the bathroom, and Mark's voice, simultaneously comforting and chastising. "That's it, mate. Get it all out, you'll feel better for it. And next time, maybe you should stick to juice."
Napoleon went in. Illya was half sprawled on the bathroom floor, his head hanging over the toilet bowl, while Mark knelt beside him, rubbing his back with one hand, while the other held a damp cloth to Illya's forehead.
"Need some help?" Napoleon asked.
Mark looked up, surprised. "Hardly. He's in no state to fight me. He'll be okay. He's as fit as a butcher's dog, this one. He just overdid it with the brandy."
Napoleon frowned. "He doesn't drink brandy. It makes him ill." What was Illya doing? Punishing himself, or trying to lose himself in oblivion?
"Well, he does when the vodka runs out." Mark shook his head. "In all the years I've known him, I've never seen him as bad as this, though."
Napoleon sighed. "Why don't you go back to bed; I'll look after him."
"I wouldn't hear of it, boss. You're getting married in the morning. You need your beauty sleep."
"I'd like to talk to him," Napoleon said.
Mark lifted Illya's head up and Illya's eye lids drooped closed. "I don't think you'll get much out of him. Not tonight. Leave it till tomorrow, eh?"
Then it will be too late, Napoleon thought, but Mark stood and shooed him out of the room, and Napoleon returned to his cold, lonely bed.
He never thought he'd sleep, but fatigue finally won. His alarm dragged him from much-needed slumber, jarring already sensitive nerves into wakefulness. He groaned in frustration as the events of the previous night asserted themselves at the forefront of his mind. Nothing had changed with the few meagre hours of sleep he'd had. The problem had not gone away.
He picked up the clock and squinted blearily at its face: 8.30 a.m. In three and a half hours, he would be a married man—and it would be too late.
He had to talk to Illya.
He flung back the sheets and headed for the bathroom. A quick shower and shave refreshed him, and he felt he was ready for what lay ahead. He glanced guiltily at his wedding suit hanging on the wardrobe door, and ignored it, dressing in a fresh shirt and slipping on the pants he'd worn the night before.
As he was dressing, someone knocked briskly at the door. He hoped against hope that it was Illya. "Come in."
Mark Slate entered, carrying a breakfast tray. "Rise and shine, gov. I've brought a hearty last meal for the condemned man," he said, placing the tray down on the bed. He looked Napoleon over, head to foot. "Shouldn't you be getting into your gear?"
"Ah, I was just going to look for Illya."
"You can look for him later. Why aren't you getting dressed?"
Napoleon glanced down at his casual wear. "Well, I needed to talk to him and it wouldn't do for my future bride to see me in my suit before the wedding, would it? Isn't that bad luck?"
"I think you have that the other way around, mate. The groom's not supposed to see the bride."
"Oh. Have you seen Illya this morning?" Napoleon asked, trying to sound casual, as he edged towards the door.
"Yeah, says his head feels like someone detonated an A-bomb inside it. I think he's chasing down some aspirin. He was whiter than a polar bear's arse last time I saw him."
"Maybe I should just check—"
Napoleon had the door half-open, when Mark slammed it shut. "He'll be fine," Mark insisted. "Stop worrying. Hell, if the bloke can walk for five miles with a bullet in his leg, he can survive a morning with a hangover. Now, sit down and have some coffee."
Napoleon sat obediently, while Mark filled a cup and handed it to him. "Anyway," Mark continued, "You don't have time to hunt down your partner, and since your Best man is indisposed for the moment, I'm taking over his duties." Mark glanced at his watch. "Here, you'd better eat while you dress." Mark handed him a slice of toast.
Napoleon chewed thoughtfully as he watched Mark take a clothes brush to his suit. He eyed the door, calculating his chance to escape. If this were a Thrush cell, he'd be sneaking up on his jailer right now, while he was distracted.
Napoleon took another bite of the toast, but it tasted like ashes. He really had to talk to Illya. He decided to give it another shot—his persistence usually paid off with most people. "Mark, Illya looked pretty sick last night. I'd like to check to see if he's okay." He saw Mark's head drop in frustration. Napoleon sighed theatrically. "You don't understand. I have to talk to him."
Mark turned, taking the suit down as he did. "And you don't understand. We don't have time. Stop worrying about him. There'll be plenty of time to talk later. Now, get some sustenance in you, then we can get you into this monkey suit."
Napoleon dropped the half-eaten toast back onto the plate and paced the small room.
Mark watched him a moment, then caught him by the shoulder on his next pass. "What's wrong?" Mark asked curiously, as Napoleon's attention seemed to be elsewhere. Napoleon turned towards him, worry evident in his expression. "Hey, you're not getting cold feet, are you?" Mark asked.
Napoleon looked at him, his expression troubled. "I think I'm making a mistake."
Mark laid the suit out carefully on the bed, and laid both hands on Napoleon's shoulders.. "Look, you never make mistakes. You're the governor, you always do the right thing." Napoleon looked away, and Mark released his hold. "You know, it's perfectly normal to feel nervous before your wedding. It's just last minute jitters, that's all." Mark looked thoughtful. "Try to think of it as... just another assignment."
Napoleon forced a smile; he couldn't explain his reluctance to Mark. Instead, he said, "You're right." He picked up the coffee and gulped it down, shaking himself physically and mentally. He released a deep breath noisily. "Okay, let's do this."
Mark stood patiently to one side as Napoleon changed, holding up the jacket while Napoleon threaded his arms into it. The jacket settled on his shoulders like it had been moulded onto him. Napoleon mentally noted the perfect fit and how good he looked in formal wear, but the better part of his mind was elsewhere.
Illya Kuryakin wasn't in the spy business for nothing: if he didn't want to be seen, he could disappear as effectively as a magician's rabbit. Whenever Napoleon enquired as to his whereabouts, the usual response was that he'd been there only moments before, but nobody knew where he was now. Napoleon was becoming more frustrated as the clock ticked nearer the time for departure.
"Transport's here," Mark called, as the guests prepared to leave.
Napoleon caught up with the Englishman. "Where's my best man?"
"He's feeling a little fragile this morning. I said I'd stand in for him. Hope you don't mind."
"That's fine, but I would like to talk to him."
Mark looked around as people began to filter through the door. "There he is. Make it quick, though, the cars should leave in about ten minutes."
Napoleon trotted over, snagging Illya by the sleeve as he was about to turn away. "Illya, we need to talk."
Illya winced, his hand rising to rub at his temples. "Can we do it quietly?"
Napoleon lowered his tone. "It's about last night."
"Last night?" Illya repeated, puzzled.
"Last night. We talked, outside. Remember?"
Illya didn't look at him, but Napoleon saw panic briefly in the bright eyes. Illya shrugged. "No. I don't remember much about last night." He turned about, looking everywhere but at Napoleon, seeking escape. "I think I should go check—"
"Stay right where you are," Napoleon ordered. "I think you remember last night perfectly well."
Illya looked back at him, his lips tight with determination. "I was drunk. I don't remember anything."
"Maybe you don't want to remember."
"Alright, I don't want to," he whispered harshly. "And you're about to get married. If you had any taste or decency, you'd forget about it, too."
He pushed past Napoleon and trotted down the steps towards the waiting cars. Napoleon was about to follow when Mark's voice called his name.
Napoleon hovered in indecision; part of him wanting to go after Illya, part of him wanted to respond to the urgency in Mark's voice. Napoleon watched with despair as Illya slid into the back of a cab, next to Reilly.
Mark was tugging at his sleeve. "Come on, we have to go. We are supposed to be there before the bride, you know."
The ride to the church was interminable, which suited Napoleon just fine. Not that he needed time to think—he'd done enough of that during the night. He'd hoped that once he managed to corner Illya, they could talk about that kiss, but Illya's denial had poured cold water on his ardour.
Fine, then. If Illya wanted to forget it, so would he.
But he couldn't. He couldn't. Last night's encounter replayed over and over in his head, like an endless loop of movie reel, so that, by the time they reached the church, he knew with crystal clarity that getting married would be a huge mistake. If he'd had any doubts before, he had none now.
In a daze, he was ushered out of the car by Mark and herded into the small church's sombre interior. Numbly, he followed Mark to the front of the pews, trying his best to ignore the faces of the guests whose gazes followed his short journey down the aisle. Mark pressed a hand to his shoulder and he sat obediently. He felt trapped, hemmed in, and looked about, seeking escape. "Relax," Mark said, seeing his unease. "You're not about to face a firing squad."
Napoleon wasn't so sure about that. What would be the reaction if he called off the wedding now, in front of all these people? Why had he allowed it to go this far? How on earth had he gotten into this mess?
He looked to his right as Illya took a seat next to him, still refusing to meet his eyes, despite the hard stare that Napoleon threw his way. Napoleon felt the heavy weight of despair settle deep in his chest.
They must have just made it in time; within minutes the organ began the opening chords of the Wedding March, and Napoleon reluctantly stood, taking his cue from everyone else.
Mark urged him forward to stand before the pastor, and Napoleon turned to look at his future bride. His future, in fact. A lifetime with a woman who was almost—but not quite—his perfect match. She looked stunning as she walked slowly down the aisle, a vision in traditional white, her auburn ringlets framing a face that men might die for.
Then he glanced back over his shoulder at Illya, catching his friend's eye. Illya smiled his encouragement, but couldn't keep the sadness from his face. Napoleon couldn't help but think how good he looked. Formal wear suited his elegant frame, even if Illya chafed inside the suit. Hell, Illya looked good in anything, even those cheap, off-the-rack suits he chose to wear. He looked best in black, though, the dark colors turning his complexion a creamy gold. And that hair....
Get a grip, Napoleon told himself as he forced his attention back to the front as Maggie joined him. He gave her a brief smile and tried to listen as the pastor greeted the guests. He was saying something about the gathering of friends and family to witness....
Napoleon tuned him out, unable to concentrate. He should say something now, shouldn't he? Stop this before it was too late. Once the vows were exchanged, that would be it, it would be over. He'd be married, and he'd never know how things might have turned out, and it was not knowing that was driving him crazy.
He tried to concentrate again on what the pastor was saying, alarmed when he realised he was about to start the vows. Speak! Say something, damn it! Do it now! Do it! Now!
He took a deep breath, fighting down the nausea, truly afraid for the first time in his life. He'd always faced his fears before, and now was not the time for cowardice. Illya had said he was brave, but where was his courage now? Cowering somewhere in the soles of his feet, by the feel of his shaking legs. The pastor was saying his name. "....do you Napoleon Antonio Solo, take this woman...."
No, I don't. I can't....Please, wait a moment, wait! He clenched his fists, prepared to speak out; he had to stop this - now! The pastor was almost at the end of the line, and he would have to make his response. It was too soon, he needed time. Wait! Wait.... He opened his mouth, felt the word on the tip of his tongue....
"Wait!" Maggie's voice rang out loud, making him jump. Napoleon turned towards her, shocked by her loud call. Wasn't that what he'd been about to say?
Maggie turned towards him, took him by the hands, pulling him closer, so she could speak to him in private. Napoleon saw the sadness in her eyes, tears threatening to spill over her beautiful face.
She shook her head. "I can't do this, Napoleon, I just can't. I'm so sorry. So very, very sorry."
"What?" Was she jilting him at the alter? He was too stunned to formulate a reply, despite what he had been prepared to do himself just moments before.
She squeezed his hands, bringing his attention back to her face. "I thought it was what I wanted, I really did. Hell, what woman wouldn't? You're a terrific guy. The brass ring, sweetie, but... I can't go through with it. There's so much I haven't done with my life yet. Places I want to visit, things I want to do, and if I marry you, I'll probably never have the chance. I'm not ready to settle down, I realise that now." She squeezed his hands, and the tears spilled over her lashes and trailed down her cheeks. "I thought I could go through with this, but I can't. I'm sorry." She tilted her head, sadness on her face. "Please say you understand," she pleaded.
Napoleon nodded and forced a smile. "I do. I understand." And he did. After all, hadn't he had the same doubts? They had both been carried away on a moment of pure insanity. He wanted to reassure her, but the words wouldn't come. Instead, he pulled her into an embrace.
"I'll never forget you," she whispered.
Then she was gone, leaving Napoleon watching her run back down the aisle the way she had come in.
The room broke into a cacophony of noise. Illya, Mark and April were by his side immediately, ushering him away.
U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters, a week later...
It was his first day back at work following what should have been his honeymoon. Hours after the fiasco at the church, Napoleon had spoken to Maggie on the phone and insisted she still use the tickets for Waikiki, and maybe take a friend. They'd promised to keep in touch and talk when Maggie got back, but Napoleon knew it was over; there would be no reconciliation. How could there be? He'd spent the week of his vacation thinking about someone else, coming to the conclusion that there was only one person he wanted in his life, and subsequently, only one direction he could now take.
He strode down the steel-lined corridor on the way to his office, encountering Riley on his way. The Irishman stopped and offered Napoleon his condolences. "I was real sorry about what happened," Riley said. "How are you feeling?"
I bet you're sorry, Napoleon thought, knowing he'd thrown a wrench into Riley's plans for his partner. People expected him to be upset, and though he was sad that Maggie had left, he felt his future now had better things to offer. Napoleon shrugged as he tried to put on the pained expression that he knew was expected of him. "I'm holding up."
"Good, good. Well... better now than a few years down the line, eh?" Riley offered.
"Ain't that the truth," Napoleon replied. He looked about, wanting to be away. He had things to do.
"Still," Riley was saying, "you're a single man again. And you know what they say. If you fall of the horse, you got to get back into the saddle."
Napoleon smiled at the Irishman's philosophy, and gave him a friendly slap on the arm. "Patrick, that's just what I intend to do." He caught a glimpse of his partner crossing the intersection at the end of the corridor, heading towards the cafeteria. "In fact, I intend to do just that, right away. If you'll excuse me."
Napoleon strode purposefully after his partner, catching up with him just as he entered the cafeteria. "Illya," he said by way of acknowledgement as he picked up a tray and joined his partner at the counter.
Surprised, Illya glanced at him and smiled before returning his attention to the selection of food and drink on offer. "Napoleon. I thought you had another week of vacation?"
"There are some things that need my immediate attention," Napoleon said pointedly, and knew Illya understood when his lips tightened at the remark. Napoleon helped himself to coffee and a Danish, waited until Illya did the same, and herded him to a corner of the room.
Illya hesitated by the table and Napoleon ordered, "Sit down. We're going to talk."
Illya obeyed, but his demeanour said it was with reluctance. "What did you want to talk about?" Napoleon gave him a look that expressed his impatience. Illya sighed, and sat back, waiting for Napoleon to start.
Now that Napoleon finally had Illya were he wanted him, he wasn't sure where to start. Napoleon concentrated on loading sugar into his coffee for a moment, gathering his thoughts as he did. "About that night—"
Illya glanced about. "Isn't it a little public to discuss this?"
Napoleon looked about the empty cafeteria. Except for the young lady serving, there was no one else around. "Would you prefer somewhere more private?"
Illya baulked at the idea of them being alone together, as Napoleon knew he would. "No. Just keep your voice down," Illya suggested.
Napoleon lowered his tone. "I guess I should start at the beginning." He took a sip of the coffee to clear his throat. "When I asked Maggie to marry me... it was an impulsive thing. We'd just made love for the first time and I was caught up in the moment. We both were. And I did love her, in a way." And he had, but he'd slowly come to realise that love came in several flavours: love for a friend, love for a close relative and the unparalleled, truly deep love that settled in the soul and in which there was only space for one. Illya fell into this latter category. Only Napoleon had always thought Illya wasn't interested in the position. Now, other possibilities had presented themselves and he couldn't ignore what might be.
He picked up the spoon and fiddled with it, turning it end over end, as he continued. "I suppose, a small part of me still does love her. She's smart, funny, reliable. All the things a person wants in a mate." Napoleon studied the coffee, unable to look at Illya as he said his next words. "All the qualities you have. Only, I'd given up on you long ago. Thought you weren't interested. I had no idea how wrong I was."
"Napoleon," Illya began carefully, as if explaining to a particularly dense child. "It was an aberration. A drunken lapse. Nothing more."
Napoleon looked up, raising a cynical eyebrow. "It may have been a lapse on your part, but only in the respect that the wall you'd build around that heart of yours was momentarily breeched. And I know you were drunk, which only makes the saying more apt." He saw Illya's eyebrows rise in question. "In vino veritas," Napoleon clarified.
"In wine is truth," Illya translated, his voice subdued. Napoleon saw him glance about, checking the area around them. The place was still more or less deserted, save for one other patron who'd just drifted into the room. It was still safe to talk. Napoleon waited patiently as Illya took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All right, at the time I.... meant it. But it was still a mistake," Illya insisted, annunciating each word carefully. "It should not have happened, and it won't happen again."
Illya sat forward, lowering his voice. "Why not? Because of my lack of control, I've ruined everything for you."
Napoleon frowned. "How do you figure that out?"
"I was responsible for the break-up of your marriage."
"I didn't get married."
"But you almost did. And it's my fault that you didn't."
"Illya, she called it off, and for her own reasons, reasons I happen to agree with. Still, I won't deny that if she hadn't, then I would have."
"Exactly my point," Illya snapped.
Napoleon rubbed at his temple. He knew this would give him a headache. "Why are you beating yourself up over this?"
"For crying out loud..." Illya shook with frustration. "I kissed you! The night before your wedding! And I was supposed to be your best man!"
Napoleon looked at him affectionately, a wry smile twisting his lips. "You still are, Illya." Illya looked away, embarrassment coloring his cheeks, and Napoleon sighed. "Look, Maggie and me.... we both made a mistake."
"You asked her to marry you," Illya said, his finger jabbing the table top to emphasise his point. "That isn't like asking her for a date, it's a serious commitment. Not something you do on the spur of the moment."
"I know that. I do," Napoleon insisted. "But the way I see it, I already have you and our partnership," he said with a smile. "So you see, I'm already committed."
"Or should be," Illya murmured. Napoleon just smiled, which seemed to unsettle Illya further. "This is serious," Illya griped.
Napoleon leaned back in his chair and regarded his friend. "I made an error in judgement. I'm not infallible, you know."
"So, you're saying you made a mistake?"
"It has been known to happen."
"Then why can't you see that I made a mistake, also?"
"A mistake is just an unplanned event that has consequences. Not all of those consequences have to be bad." He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table, letting his hands linger as close to Illya's as he dared. "Look, I've changed lately. I'm tired of fooling around. The thrill of the chase became tedious long ago, when I realised what I'd become."
"And that is?"
"A caricature, playing a part that everyone expected of me, yourself included. Womaniser, philanderer, Lothario. At first, those descriptions were appropriate and no more than I deserved. But I'm not that young, sex-obsessed skirt-chaser any more. I've grown, matured. I want a stable relationship with someone I care about. I want someone to call my own. I thought Maggie might be the one, but you made me realise I was settling for second-best, because I thought the one I really wanted wasn't interested."
"Napoleon, this could have had serious repercussions for both of you. Supposing Maggie hadn't cried off? What would you have done then?"
"Then I would have called it off."
"You were at the altar, for God's sake. If you weren't sure, why didn't you stop it earlier?"
Napoleon winced. Illya was right—but it was hard to explain. Sometimes, you just painted yourself into a corner, making it difficult to escape. "I know I should have. I wanted to talk to you about it, but you kept avoiding me, remember?"
"So, you're saying this is my fault?" Illya asked with disbelief.
Napoleon shook his head in amusement. "Illya, you were ready to take the blame a minute ago. Make up your mind, tovarichsh."
"My mind? I think I must have lost it that night before the wedding."
"If it's any consolation, I lost something that night, too." Illya looked at him curiously, and in reply Napoleon laid his hand over his heart. Illya rolled his eyes and sat back. Napoleon knew he'd be hard to convince. "Illya, our partnership...well, it's like a marriage. We're committed to each other, we trust each other, we look out for each other. You know everything about me and I know everything about you. At least, I thought I did."
"This is not the same," Illya hissed quietly. "I can never give you the things she can."
"A family, a home, companionship."
"You're all the family I need. And all the companionship. Hell, we already spend most of our free time together."
"Alright, then, what about a sex life?"
Napoleon waggled his eyebrows and smirked. "Now, I know you're not that naïve."
Illya flushed. "This is absurd!" he blurted out.
"I agree. You know what I want, and I know what you want. Why are we wasting time?" He tapped out his impatience on the table as Illya turned his head away. "You know, caring for someone isn't a crime," Napoleon offered gently.
"No, it's a liability." Illya turned at the sound of the door swinging open accompanied by a guffaw of laugher. Several agents walked in, looking a little grimy and obviously in need of sustenance. It wasn't hard to guess that they'd just returned from a successful mission, judging by the loud banter and back-slapping. Someone shouted Napoleon's name, and he waved back in acknowledgment.
"C'mon, let's get out of here," Napoleon said quietly. He pushed aside the untouched Danish and stood. "We can finish this conversation in my office."
Illya gritted his teeth and followed in his partner's wake. It would be no use arguing the point. If he put off this discussion today, Napoleon would mention it at every available opportunity until he'd worn his friend down. It was a tactic Illya was all too familiar with.
Back at the office, Napoleon waited until his friend entered, closed the door, and turned quickly, trapping Illya against the wall. Illya flinched in surprise. "What—?"
Napoleon smothered Illya's question with his mouth. His tongue licked briefly over Illya's lips, seeking sanctuary, but Illya's lips remained firmly sealed. Napoleon concentrated on putting all his experience into the kiss as he held his partner close, appreciating the softness of Illya's lips against his own, willing his partner to succumb as he mouthed the rosy skin. An erogenous part of the body, the mouth was dense with sensitive nerve endings—even Illya couldn't be that numb to such stimulation.
Napoleon's patience paid off. By small degrees, he felt his partner's body relax. His lips parted and Napoleon's tongue slipped tentatively into the breach, slowly penetrating, ready to withdraw if Illya baulked at the intrusion. He felt Illya's tongue against his own, almost shy in its exploration, and felt, rather than heard, Illya's soft moan of pleasure as a vibration against his chest. The heated blood in Napoleon's veins made a detour to his groin.
He'd held Illya in his arms before, but only for succour, to comfort when hurt. He already knew every contour, every inch of skin, but it was a revelation to hold him so intimately, in the heat of passion. He could feel a subtle shifting in the muscles beneath his hands, as if Illya's body was being held back, like an eager horse being reined in. How Napoleon ached for that body to be freed of its owner's self-restraint. How he wished for Illya to give in to his desire. For the moment, Napoleon was lost in the pleasure, as surely now as he had been that night before the wedding. He could stay like this forever, foregoing all that was necessary to survive, as long as he had Illya to sustain him.
He was brought back to reality as Illya ended the kiss, pushing away and putting as much distance between them as Napoleon and the wall at his back would allow. They studied each other for a long moment, each trying to put their emotions back into some semblance of order. Napoleon could feel the beading of sweat prickle on his forehead, easily matching the flush of Illya's skin, as both men labored to slow their breathing.
Always the consummate actor, Illya's face remained outwardly blank—but his body betrayed him. Napoleon glanced down, saw Illya's fingers rubbing against his thumbs, a sure sign of his agitation. He looked back, capturing Illya's gaze with his own.
"Why did you do that?" Illya asked breathlessly.
"To make sure it was what you wanted. What we both wanted. And no matter how much you deny it to yourself, you do want me."
"No." Illya shook his head, confused by his partner's close proximity. Flustered, his mouth set in a determined line of denial.
"We've already discussed this." Illya tried to move away, but Napoleon refused to budge. Illya sighed. "Please, don't do this. We do no need this kind of distraction."
"Am I a distraction?"
Against his better judgement, Illya gave Napoleon a little of the truth. "Yes. We cannot afford to become too... intimate. What you're suggesting is dangerous, in more ways than one."
Napoleon's expression softened. "Illya, we live with danger every day. Don't we deserve a little happiness?"
"You're in the wrong business if it's happiness you're looking for."
"The best thing for both of us is to forget this ever happened."
Napoleon pursed his lips. "I'm not so sure I can." He licked dry lips and dropped his tone to a purr. "Especially after that kiss." As they spoke, Napoleon's hand had come to rest on the wall by Illya's head as he moved stealthily closer, until their lips almost met. For a second he thought Illya might cooperate, but his partner shook his head, as if rousing himself from slumber.
Illya ducked under the restraining arm. "No. We will not speak of this again."
Napoleon sighed sadly. "Okay. We'll play it your way. For now."
Illya's expression softened at the tone. "It would be the sensible thing to do. Trust me, Napoleon. Now, if your curiosity is satisfied, I have to be somewhere." Illya straightened his tie, along with his composure, and started to move away.
"Still," Napoleon called, as Illya walked towards the door. "I meant what I said that night. About loving you."
Illya stopped, as still as a statue. For one heart-stopping moment, Napoleon thought he'd turn back, but just as his hopes began to take an upward turn, Illya became animated once more as he quickened his stride and walked out.
Illya was agitated—and odd as it sounded, to Napoleon that was a good sign. He shrugged and smiled smugly as the door closed on his friend. "Yep. He wants me," he said to himself, confidently. Despite all of Illya's protestations to the contrary, Napoleon had no intention of letting the matter drop—he was tenacious by nature. Like the Canadian Mounties, he always got his man.
Napoleon hadn't made CEA for nothing. He was in his element when it came to strategy, and he was already planning the campaign to win his partner over. He'd already put the idea of a relationship into Illya's mind and now that he'd planted the seed of possibility, it would take some nurturing for it to grow; a lot of warmth, a little care and attention—and, perhaps, some watering with a fine Napoleon brandy—rather apt, he thought, under the circumstances. After all, hadn't that been the cause of his partner's brazen display of passion that night?
It was going to work out—Napoleon would see to that. Illya just needed a little time to get used to the idea.
Napoleon slipped on his jacket and prepared for battle.