It was official. Napoleon Solo was no longer.
No longer solo, that is.
The tomcat at last had a collar and leash. The stallion had been put into harness. The anointed heir to Alexander Waverly's throne had been given a mandatory playmate. Waverly himself had beckoned with his wand (all right, his pipe, but the effect was the same) and made it happen, and that meant there just wasn't anything to be done about it.
Not that Napoleon had never been on cooperative missions. Oh, no. He genuinely liked his fellow agents. He worked and played well with others. But that was on a mission by mission basis--entering a team in order to lead it, leaving when the work was done. Riding triumphantly away, dropping a silver bullet. Who was that masked man. Hi-yo Silver, awaaaaay.
Hi-yo Silver, Napoleon called out wistfully in his head, flexing his arms slightly to counteract the pull of the chains from which he and His Partner (the newness hadn't worn off yet, and the words still sometimes appeared in his mind in capital letters) were suspended. Their bodies hung as counterweights from either end of a monstrous iron I-beam precariously balanced across the top of a tall metal column, like a see-saw atop a flagpole. Whenever one of them moved (as Napoleon had just moved to ease his numbing arms), the beam tilted a little to one side or the other. Napoleon bent his head to eye the cement floor of the shaft far beneath them, careful not to move too suddenly. It was a long drop. The moment they got out of balance, the moment one man made a move not counterbalanced by the other, gravity would take over and bring beam, chains, and men tumbling down. It was a nice setup when you stopped to think about it. Sort of elaborate, but nice. Not just immobilizing and uncomfortable, but nerve-wracking.
Napoleon held still again, feeling a little extra circulation thrum refreshingly through his arms and hands, and let his eyes roam over the device that held them. It was their first down-to-the-wire situation as a pair. A pair, that was the sticky part. He hadn't ever been tied to anyone as a permanent partner before, a member of an indissoluble duo. Till death do us part. Death or Waverly, whichever came first. Napoleon wasn't sure which one he'd rather face. Sometimes he thought the Grim Reaper might be a little more amenable to persuasion than Mr. Waverly when his mind was made up. After all, Napoleon had escaped Death's scythe more times than he cared to remember; he'd gotten used to feeling the breeze from the sweeping blade whistle past his ear. He'd seldom been as successful at thwarting the head of U.N.C.L.E. Especially this time. Hold out your ankle, Solo, he thought idly, without venom but without joy. Here's your ball and chain.
Said ball and chain hung quietly across from Napoleon, arms over his head, feet dangling with the toes slightly pointed. Long blond hair was combed down over his forehead in the front and fell nearly to his collar in the back, giving him a dissolute air. He was compact and wiry--and stronger than he looked, judging from the way he presently had his arms bent, steadily taking the strain in his biceps rather than on the joints of wrist and shoulder. As Napoleon's gaze passed across the composed, chiseled face, Kuryakin looked up and caught his eye, lifting his brows in the equivalent of a shrug.
Napoleon thought that he looked pretty damn calm for someone harnessed to a deathtrap. Of course, he himself wasn't exactly whimpering at the moment; he'd been in situations like this before. It was part of the job. But Kuryakin was newer to the high-pressure field missions Mr. Waverly saved for the elite enforcement agents. Napoleon would have liked to see at least a little bit of sweat. Prove it meant something to him when the stakes were high. It just went to show you--of all the agents in all the world, Napoleon had to get himself partnered with a workhorse. Nothing wrong with workhorses, but they were meant for plowing, not for cross-country steeplechases.
He matched the eyebrow-shrug and wondered if it was something about Russians. Maybe they were just naturally taciturn. All that Siberian tundra cooled them off, slowed them down. Fine over a game of chess, but useless when you needed quick thinking. Like now. He took a few deep breaths, willing away the creeping numbness in his fingers.
"Aren't you glad you took the New York transfer?" he asked wryly.
But Kuryakin didn't laugh, nor return Napoleon's rueful smile. "I have no regrets," he said, his voice measured.
The smile turned into a polite laugh. "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."
Napoleon eyed the serious face. "Mm-hmm. Maybe. Still, I don't think hanging was in the job description."
Kuryakin was silent for a few moments, and Napoleon thought he was at last getting through to something underneath the stolid exterior. But finally, in the same grave tone, the Russian said, "It isn't the hanging so much as the tilting."
Napoleon glanced upward toward his smarting wrists, twisting his mouth in a grimace. He said dubiously, "Well, you have to admit that the hanging--"
(He's got it,) came a sudden thought, unbidden.
Napoleon fell silent. Whatever he was about to say left him entirely. He paid close attention to this particular thought, as irritating as it might be, precisely because it came out of nowhere. It was the familiar, small, steady voice that drifted up through the layers of his conscious mind when he let his thoughts wander. It was the voice that told him to jump right before an unexpected shot rang out, or guided his hand to the one book on a shelf of a thousand that triggered the entrance to a secret passage. This part of himself, when heeded well, had gotten him out of scrapes and into clover time and again. Some kind of intuition, maybe. His U.N.C.L.E. colleagues called it "Solo's Luck," but he tried not to think too much about it. All he knew was that when that little voice spoke, his job was to relax and listen.
(He's got it. It's not the hanging, it's the tilting,) it said patiently, and Napoleon let his eyes wander back over the mechanism he had been idly examining. There were a few inches of clearance between the ends of the I-beam and the scarred cement walls of the shaft. But farther down...he lowered his eyes, scanning intently. Farther down, there were a few sets of jagged outcroppings that he had first seen as the beam was being hoisted into position. Probably leftover protective shelves for whatever machinery the shaft used to house. His gaze flicked up to the I-beam, then down to the outcroppings. The point was, if the beam didn't tilt as it fell, then there wouldn't be enough clearance for the ends to get past that gradual narrowing of the shaft walls. It would slow down as it scraped the sides and then jam there, a comfortable distance from the ground and as solid as you please. Much easier to get free if your only means of support wasn't subject to this constant, precarious motion--
"Solo." Kuryakin's voice finally broke into his train of thought.
Napoleon looked up, feeling a little dazed. "Hmm?"
Kuryakin said nothing more, simply watching him.
"How are your hands?" Napoleon asked without preamble.
To his credit, Kuryakin asked for no explanations. "Cramped, but not numb."
"Good." Napoleon moved his fingers experimentally. "You'll need to be able to hold on. This beam has to fall."
Not a flicker of reaction. Napoleon made a mental note to look for the circuitry panel in the man's back the next time he got a chance. He imagined sticking a screwdriver in and giving His Partner's enthusiasm levels a few turns up. A few rough turns.
Kuryakin carefully bent his head to look down. After a few moments, he looked back up. "And it has to fall level."
He caught on quickly, Napoleon had to give him that. "Absolutely level."
"Come on then. We have to get up top." Napoleon flexed his aching arms and pulled himself up, grasping the chain above him. He figured the sooner the better; it was a fair climb from here. It was also a mistake. The precipitous movement swung his body backward, bumping solidly into the shaft wall. This sent the weight ratio off for just a moment, and the beam remorselessly began to tip.
Napoleon could see it far too clearly as time slowed down to a crawl. Every solitary second thudded like a cannon shot. Boom, he saw the beam tip tip tip and slide, the fulcrum too narrow to contain it. Boom, he saw the great wedge of metal tilted on end, slicing down through the shaft, dragging Kuryakin's struggling body with it at the lower end and towing himself along above it. And boom, he saw them all hit the cement with rupturing force, the beam gouging a trench, their bodies leaving patterns of blood and brain to decorate the grimy surface. Heightened adrenaline crossed the line into sick shaking fear, because he knew exactly what was going to happen.
Except that it didn't quite happen that way. There was a tremor in the beam's progress--Napoleon jerked his head back to gape up at it, unbelieving, before looking sharply across at Kuryakin. Amazing. Just in time to stop the beam from tipping too far and crossing the balance point of no return, it looked like the Russian had swung himself back to press at the shaft wall. Not too forcefully, not too lightly. Just enough to send the beam slowly back the other way. It was rocking itself back to stability, each tip a little less drastic.
Napoleon stared at the other man. He couldn't help himself. Perhaps he looked a little grim, because after a few moments under his regard Illya spoke. One word, his accent giving it a precise articulation: "Physics."
Napoleon hung there for a while, digesting that. Physics. "Thank you," he said at last, urbanely. He could feel sweat trickling between his shoulder blades.
The fair head moved in the slightest of nods, not enough to set the beam wobbling again. Silence descended.
Gradually, Napoleon's breath slowed, and the leftover adrenaline sorted itself out to a manageable level. Into the quiet, he suddenly said, "I shouldn't have moved without you." It was the truth, and he had to acknowledge it, but it felt strange on his tongue.
Illya curled and uncurled the fingers of one hand. He didn't directly reply. Instead, he looked up the length of the chain appraisingly. "Are you ready?"
Napoleon would have nodded had he not been so newly and agonizingly conscious of every extra movement. As it was, he simply looked at Illya, making solid eye contact. Waiting. If they were going to do this, they had to do it together every step of the way. Clear blue eyes settled on his--unnervingly fair, pupils constricted in the midst of glittering pale irises. And as their gazes met, Napoleon felt--something, though he couldn't put a name to it. It felt like the solid click you got when you popped a fresh magazine into your weapon. Hidden levers engaging, well-oiled metal latching. A sense of connection. Slowly, Napoleon reached up with his right hand, shackle dragging at his wrist; Illya's right hand moved at the same time. Both men gripped the chain and flexed their muscles at the same moment, pulling themselves up. There was a pause. And then, with more certainty, another release, another grip, another pull. Hand over hand they climbed gradually up the chains, each pull and shift of weight happening at the same moment. Their eyes were locked together, binding them in a unity of thought, purpose, and effort. Time reduced itself to the rhythm of their interlinked motion. His hands were Illya's hands. His arms were Illya's arms. His body was Illya's body.
Whose fault it was Napoleon could not say, but the steady pulse of the climb suddenly skipped a beat, fragile unity cracked. There was some kind of mismatch for only a fraction of a second. Off kilter, Napoleon's body swung back to bump into the side of the shaft again, sending the weight ratio momentarily into the danger zone. The I-beam tilted slowly, ponderously. This time, though, there was no moment of prescient fear. Napoleon's eyes were still on Illya's, and he knew--saw? sensed?--that Illya would quickly counterbalance that swing with one of his own, touching the wall on his own side. And this he did, sending the beam back in the other direction until it had basically equalized itself. As one they waited for the tipping to stabilize, and as one they continued the climb until their fingertips finally touched the beam itself.
Napoleon had no idea whose initiative sparked each movement, nor did he care. All he knew was that there was a strange new current singing along his nerves and down his spine, and he was scarcely "he" anymore. He was "they." There was no planning aloud, no "one two three go." They both locked their hands around the beam, pressed their feet against the sides of the shaft, balanced, and pushed. The mass of iron slipped from its perch, level as you please, and they were all falling. Wind ruffled through their hair--he felt its cool lick along his scalp, he watched it lightly toss Illya's bangs. Blue eyes so strong and clear he could drown in them and never notice.
Scraping. Slowing. Impact. With a shrieking, echoing crunch, the fall ended, jolting their gazes apart and yanking their hands from the beam. They swung from the shackles. This time, though, the motion didn't matter; the outcroppings, though cracked, were holding. The trap was sprung and disarmed.
Illya was already hoisting himself up with one hand and squirming his other hand free of its metal cuff. That hand, then the other, and he dropped lightly to the ground, landing in an agile crouch. Napoleon watched him mutely. He wondered if this was how conjoined twins felt after the doctor swept the scalpel between them, severing links of nerve and muscle and heart.
The blond head was tipped upward, on a level with Napoleon's legs as he dangled. Without a word, Illya stepped close to him and wrapped his arms around Napoleon's knees, pushing upward, taking the weight off the shackles. Obediently, Napoleon used the surcease in pressure to aid him in painfully working his hands from the clumsy restraints. He let go of the chains at last and felt himself descend, half-falling half-sliding, slipping down along the front of Illya's body until his feet touched ground. Illya's steadying arms were still around him. Without thought, he slid his own arms around his partner (where had the capital letters gone? They seemed to have disappeared, taking his cynicism with them) and held him tight, closing his eyes, savoring the memory of that strange link. That two-in-one.
Then strong hands were setting him back a pace, steadying him. He blinked sweat from his eyes and watched Illya turn calmly toward the door.
"I'll see if I can...'borrow' their delivery truck," Illya said. "We'll need a quick escape route."
Napoleon cleared his throat and tugged each of his cuffs back into place. Slowly. "I'll get the sample bottle from the lab and meet you out front," he said at last. "The detonators are set to go in eight minutes."
And with that, they went their separate ways.
Twelve hours later they sat two chairs apart during the debriefing in Waverly's office. Napoleon's hands rested loosely on the polished table; Illya's were steepled in front of him. When the two had been sent out on the mission, their dark suits had matched. Now, while Napoleon's trousers still held their crease and his lapels were still pressed, Illya's clothes were in a sad state. The knees were caked with dried mud, and there was a jagged cut up one sleeve from a knife blade. Dark patches of blood smudged the collar of his shirt--mostly his own blood, in fact, from a wound on his forehead now neatly covered by a white gauze pad and a fall of limp blond hair. It was safe to say that borrowing the getaway truck hadn't been an easy affair.
"So this is what all the fuss was about?" Alexander Waverly mused, carefully lifting the small brown bottle before him. "This was the last sample of X twenty-four B in Thrush's possession?"
"Yes sir," Napoleon said with no small satisfaction, stretching out both arms and then folding his hands triumphantly behind his head. "Now that the plans and the manufacturing center are destroyed, there's nothing to worry about. All that remains is to seal it and put it in a safe place."
"All that remains," Illya broke in, "is to analyze it, break down its chemical constituents, extrapolate the formula, and run the proper experiments on it. That's all."
Napoleon lifted his chin to gaze at the ceiling. "Spoilsport."
Waverly gently placed the bottle back on the table and rotated the circular tabletop until the bottle rested directly in front of them. "If that's all that remains, Mr. Kuryakin," he said imperturbably, settling back in his chair, "then you had best get to it. Good night, gentlemen, and good work."
Thus dismissed, Napoleon eagerly rose and headed for the door, leaving Illya and the bottle behind. He was looking forward to a shower and shave in one of the locker rooms, and a suit fresh from the press at Del Floria's. He wanted to feel human again. He wanted to feel like Napoleon Solo, self-contained and ready for anything.
He wasn't sure what he wanted.
Showered, shaved, and dressed to the nines, Napoleon wandered through HQ chatting with all and sundry who had pulled night duty on a Saturday. They were happy to see him, as always. And after twenty minutes or so, he realized that he was prowling again.
He tried not to think of it as prowling, not if he could help it, but when it came right down to it that's what it was. It was a habit he had fallen into early in his career. First thing after a mission, blood full of the pleasantly tingling remnants of adrenaline, there was nothing he loved more than to turn his energy toward a date. An expensive dinner, a dimly-lit cocktail lounge, a warm bed with an even warmer woman--that was the usual pattern, and it had served him well so far. He had made some fine friends, at the very least: women who were pleased to be the goal of the prowl, who thoroughly enjoyed his enjoyment of them.
There was something unsettling about this particular night, though. He felt restless and uncomfortable, and he knew that it was showing. He had talked to a number of women who ordinarily would have been happy to accompany him. Tonight, though, aside from a little friendly flirtation, they all seemed to be keeping their distance. He began to watch the faces of junior agents and support staff more carefully as he spoke to them, trying to see some kind of reflection of himself. Mostly what he saw in their eyes was unease. Friendly unease, but unease for all that. Napoleon shouldered his way through another door and took the stairs down two at a time. He was out of luck for tonight, he was sure of it. He was carrying something with him, something indefinable, and everyone else could sense it. He'd just have to clamp down, brace up, and turn his prowling to some more productive purpose. Damn this mission, anyway. It had turned him into a wreck.
That thought brought him to a halt on one of the stair landings. Come on, Solo. You live for danger, he chided himself. How often have you foiled dastardly plans just in the nick of time? What makes this one so special? He sorted through the events and impressions of the day, and mentally shrugged. He didn't know.
Oh, God. There was that voice again. Napoleon wasn't sure if he was happy to hear it this time. He was glad to take drastic mental leaps sideways when the success of a mission depended on it, but the mission was over now. He wanted his feet back on solid ground, mentally speaking. No intuition out of the clear blue, thanks. Fervently trying to ignore any more interruptions from the depths of his psyche, he dashed the rest of the way down the flight of stairs he was on and pushed the door open.
Blue subbasement. Very quiet this time of night, with most if not all of the lab techs and scientific support staff off until tomorrow. A nice place for a stroll. He could shake off whatever the problem was, and at least get himself in shape to go out for a solitary nightcap before catching some sleep. He was sure he'd be over it by--
He stopped. What was that noise? Someone else was still here. Either that or Mr. Waverly had taken to renting out his organization's laboratories and experiment facilities for band practice. A melody was threading its way through the empty halls, faint and nearly indistinguishable from here. Napoleon followed it with aimless curiosity, his head cocked to one side; the trail of sound eventually led him to a side hall and up to the door of one of the less-used labs. He straightened his tie and nudged a shoulder against the door, preparing to breeze in and see who might be entertaining themselves in the basement at this time of night. But the door wasn't fully latched, and it drifted open an inch or so at the light pressure. Through the small opening Napoleon caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure of white and gold, and he stopped where he was with his body pressed against the doorjamb.
Illya was inside, his crisp white lab coat hanging casually open over a snug black turtleneck and dark trousers. He stood before an expansive workbench that held a wealth of equipment; the little brown bottle of X twenty-four B sat in the midst of it all, the center of attention. The music was clear now, a smoky melody of jazz guitar against a backdrop of soft snare drum. It rose from some unseen turntable and floated in the air, wrapping itself around the laboratory's lord and master, brushing against his skin like a contented cat.
Napoleon observed Illya silently, watching the way he turned and moved intently from one part of the experiment to another. This was a side of Illya he had not yet seen: the scientist and scholar, immersed in his element, his mind brought to bear like a laser. The rich notes of the guitar flowed over and through him, and as he concentrated, measuring and testing and calibrating, his body and hands expressed a kind of fierce grace. He was sinuously and unconsciously in rhythm with the music. Or was it in rhythm with him, singing the essence of what he was? Napoleon was mesmerized. Music and man combined before him in a utilitarian dance, filling the air with power and electricity. With potential. As he watched, he could feel himself drifting slightly, drawn as by a whirlpool, reaching out. The pull was inexorable.
Alarm shot through him, and he resisted. He mentally shook himself and tried to retreat, just admiring from a distance. After all, his partner was a good man, and the sight was undeniably pleasant. Look at him move. The man shouldn't be cooped up in here on a Saturday night. He should be--
(We should be...)
He throttled the parenthetical comment before it could go any further, finishing sternly to himself, --he should be out on a date.
(He should be with me, I should be with him,) the inner voice insisted gleefully. Napoleon cut that line of thought off without mercy, but something about the way it meekly retreated to the depths of his mind told him that it wasn't finished with him. It had not yet begun to fight.
Illya had stopped roving among various sets of equipment and was now poised in front of one complicated setup involving a burner, several stoppered flasks, and a few tubes and pipes that Napoleon couldn't make much of. Napoleon's attention wasn't on the tubes and pipes, in any case, but solidly on his partner; blond hair falling softly across his bandaged forehead, Illya was very still, very intent, eyes fixed on some tiny measurement or other. The music followed suit, gradually settling into a series of light, flickering notes across the guitar strings. The growing quiet was becoming so intense, so profound, that Napoleon found himself almost holding his breath so as not to disturb it. He couldn't help it--he found himself swept once more toward the fugue state he had been in for a moment there, when Illya's experiments and their jazz accompaniment had almost shown him a way back into that morning's strange experience. Two-in-one. It carried him like an undertow.
And then--as he had half-expected, as he had wholly feared--Napoleon's inner voice, the intuitive and divergent part of his mind, the one that had gotten him out of so many scrapes, pushed him right into the middle of a new one. And it did this with nothing but one simple comment, whispered from the depths.
(I need him.)
Now this was unexpected. True aching need revealed his own incompleteness--a foreign feeling and a painful one. That's what the mission had wrought in him. It had slipped around Napoleon's guard very effectively, waiting for just the right moment of stillness and anticipation, and he was blindsided by it. He flinched inwardly...and outwardly as well, unfortunately, expelling his half-held breath in a frustrated puff.
That slight noise was all it took. The fusion of science and jazz, the intense solitary peace, tumbled down like a house of cards before that breath. Illya's posture stiffened, straightened, becoming at once less graceful and less powerful, battening down the hatches. He whirled and glared in Napoleon's direction. Napoleon blinked at him, disappointed; he looked...unfamiliar, all of a sudden.
"Can I help you?" Illya asked formally, stalking toward the record player on a corner table.
Yes. No. Napoleon padded the rest of the way into the lab and carefully closed the door behind him. He didn't really have an answer to that question; he seemed to be having trouble marshaling his thoughts. The music ended in mid-note as Illya lifted the tone arm and flicked it back to its rest. "Don't turn it off."
Illya gave a narrow shrug. "It was nearly over." His voice was polite now, and patient.
"Who was it?"
"A Belgian Romani. You don't know him." Illya returned to the burner and one of its simmering flasks, eyeing a temperature gauge closely. He took a pen from the lab coat and began to write on a clipboard.
Napoleon put his hands in his pockets and lounged diffidently against the workbench. He felt like ten kinds of fool. Now that the need had been awakened in him, he found himself thirsting for any companionship, any contact with his partner at all--even down to standing in his lab and watching him scratch incomprehensible data onto a chart. It was irritating. He decided to give it five minutes and then take himself home where there was no danger of anyone seeing him look quite so stupid.
Five minutes passed, and ten, and fifteen. Napoleon was sitting on the edge of the workbench now, swinging his legs, content. Illya was generally quiet as he worked, but Napoleon gradually came to understand that this wasn't a hostile or uncomfortable silence. In fact, he was beginning to find it restful, watching his partner deep in concentration, discovering new ways to eke bits of information out of the stubborn chemical.
"Pardon me." Illya was leaning past him, setting up a new burner in close proximity with a small vial on top.
Napoleon scooted over slightly. "Should I move?"
Illya waved a careless hand and wandered over to another set of experiments. Napoleon secretly rejoiced in that permission even as he berated himself for being an idiot. This uncomfortable state of affairs might have persisted all night had the nearby vial not begun to make a faint squeaking noise.
"Say, Illya," he said, hopping lightly down from the workbench and turning to call to his partner, who was buried in a forbidding jungle of glassware and machines across the room. "Is this something I should be--"
The squeak suddenly turned into a hiss and a pop, and a bubble of simmering liquid burst, sending a fine mist of droplets into the air. Napoleon instinctively flinched; a dozen red-hot pinpricks stung his skin, flared, and vanished almost before he could register the pain. He lowered his protective arm and began to turn back toward the burner, opening his mouth to say something droll about Illya's tremendous skill with basic chemical equipment.
He didn't get a chance.
Something barreled into him, hard, rocking him off balance; a strong pair of arms wrapped around his chest from behind. Arms? Illya? Napoleon ducked his head and struggled, trying to evade the merciless grip. His mind was frozen, left behind by the turn of events, and his mission-sharpened body took over. He had sparred with the man a few times, and he had managed to break this exact same grip once... Muscle memory kicked in, and he automatically reached up and backward, but he could feel his fingertips barely grazing Illya's hair as Illya jerked his head out of reach. The arms around him tightened, and he could feel Illya's body pressed against his back, muscles coiling and heaving to half-lift and half-shove him forward.
Napoleon stumbled a few steps, striving to brace his feet against his partner's relentless force. Every time he thought he had found purchase with which to break from Illya's grasp, his feet slipped from under him and he found himself manhandled another step forward. Napoleon was shocked to find himself damning his new Italian leather shoes, shoes he had been proud to spend hundreds of dollars to have custom made and flown in from Rome.
The shoes metaphorically fled Napoleon's mind, though, when the imprisoning arms released their hold just as Illya's foot hit him lightly and deftly in the back of the leg, buckling that knee and bringing him down heavily to the floor. Napoleon landed on one knee and let his momentum carry him a bit further forward, catching himself on both hands to cushion the impact. It had only been a few seconds, more than enough time for his mind to catch up with his body. Now he had some words for Illya. Choice words. Unoriginal, but satisfying.
"What the hell is--" he began as he lifted his head. But the words were choked off by a burst of tepid water catching him full in the face, filling his mouth and eyes. He sputtered and coughed, ducking again behind an upraised arm, trying to retreat; a merciless hand grasped the back of his neck and pinned him beneath the water's flow.
"Hold still." Illya's answering words were rushed. "Hold still."
Water drenched Napoleon's hair, soaked into his shirt. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, and turned his head as best he could with Illya holding him by the scruff of the neck for all the world like a disobedient cat.
"Kuryakin," he said, very quiet now. Smooth, the tone of his voice, as smooth as ever he used on a Thrush mastermind. Smooth and dangerous.
Illya's habitually impassive face actually changed for once, surprise flickering across his features. He drew breath to speak, but Napoleon didn't really want to hear it. He'd been fighting Thrush for the past two days and fighting his own thoughts since then, and he was sick and tired of it. Frustration welled up and overpowered all reason.
He jerked away from the restraining hand, and this time he succeeded, Illya's grip sliding off his water-slicked skin. Napoleon unhesitatingly charged, lunging upward like an arrow loosed from a bow. He slammed into his partner without feinting or dodging, cutting off whatever Illya was about to say; they seized each other, grappling, each straining to break the other's grip. Napoleon gritted his teeth, feeling Illya's muscles tight against him. He tried to twist away, using the slipperiness of his wet skin to his advantage again, but Illya anticipated it this time and his grip held. They stood locked in a practically motionless struggle. Napoleon felt frozen in stasis--irresistible force meets damned traitorous immovable object.
(Traitorous?) came that stern, inconvenient little voice. And moments later Napoleon's grip was slackening, because of course he didn't believe that, not really. An automatic measure of trust flooded him, cooling his confused fury. He couldn't help it. Ever since that morning, when he had first felt--well, partnered--there had been trust there, nestled in the back of his mind. He didn't have to try to trust Illya...it just happened. He suddenly let go, spinning from Illya's hands, and allowed the momentum to push him back a few steps, out of reach.
Illya made an abrupt move forward as if to grab him again, but stopped short. His face was still drawn tight. "What's the matter with you, Napoleon?" he asked urgently. "It only takes a few seconds to soak in. Look at your tie."
What's the matter with me? was Napoleon's first thought, roiling with indignation and something that felt uncomfortably close to embarrassment. He pushed that thought away. Then, after a moment, the rest of Illya's demand registered. The absurdity of the non sequitur left him little to do but obey. He glanced downward.
Around his neck now hung a tatter of wet cloth, ragged and uneven holes smoking in the pattern of the silk.
He looked up, peering at Illya through his wet forelock. Illya met his gaze squarely, wordlessly, and now he could see that the tightness in the angular face held a definite cast of worry. Worry for him. He found the source of the water: a bright yellow showerhead, looming over the emergency shower in the corner of the lab. Oh, brother. Now he'd done it.
"X twenty-four B?" he asked, at last.
Illya nodded once.
"I liked this tie," Napoleon said mournfully.
In response, Illya held a hand under the cascading water, silver droplets pounding his palm. "You're not finished yet. Get back in."
Napoleon reluctantly leaned his upper body into the full force of the shower. "As long as it's an actual emergency."
"Actual," Illya agreed. "All the way in, please."
Napoleon shook his head. "These shoes have had enough water damage as it is."
Illya glanced up at the ceiling. Mildly: "Would you rather your feet had the damage?"
Napoleon sank down to sit on the shower floor; he squinted through the spray of water and fumbled with his shoelaces. His cheeks burned. Napoleon Solo, Super Spy, least perceptive man in the universe. His wandering mind and his frustration had gotten in the way of what should have been obvious. He felt ridiculous. He was sure he looked ridiculous. As soon as he had the stuff washed off his skin, he was going to retreat--right out of here and into a dry suit. A dry suit and a dryer martini. He wouldn't come up for air until he had forgotten all about this. All about the way Illya had looked, supremely unselfconscious, music moving through his bones and into his deft hands. His face rapt. His clear, fierce eyes soft with ecstatic concentration. New to Napoleon, but part of him, tempting him into that odd and addictive meshing of thought and muscle he'd found on the mission. That damned mission. Napoleon yanked off the shoe and threw it savagely to one side, reaching slowly for the other foot.
All at once, Illya's hands were on his. Napoleon looked up.
"I'm sorry. But there isn't time." Illya was kneeling close, his brows drawn together, the droplets pattering on his hair and glittering in his eyelashes. Slipping his hands beneath Napoleon's, ignoring the wet, knotted laces, he efficiently pulled off the other shoe and set it aside. Then his fingers delved into the dark dress socks, peeling them off as well. He caught Napoleon's foot and lifted it, bending down to it, the back of his head darkening with the water's spray.
Napoleon blinked. "Ah..." he began, but his words trailed off. What did you say when your partner was curled over your bare foot like a demented Prince seeking a damp Cinderella? They never covered this in U.N.C.L.E. training sessions. He opened his mouth and simply let words come out. Any words at all. It couldn't hurt now--nothing could. "Your bandage is getting wet."
Illya moved to the other foot, cradling it between his hands, examining the skin intently. "It doesn't matter." Then his hands were inside Napoleon's trouser legs, skimming up his calves; his fingertips roamed across the skin as if he were reading Braille. Napoleon started, jerking reflexively backward. Illya straightened up and reached for the buckle of Napoleon's thin leather belt.
I can do it myself. That's what Napoleon meant to say. He had caught up to Illya now; he understood that the tiny chemical stings he had felt might have some more sinister consequences. But this closeness fed the need, spoke to his inchoate newborn desire to find once more the uncanny unspoken synthesis of this morning. Find it and hold on to it. Rational speech was finally beyond him as he struggled with the strange hunger.
Illya was drawing the expensive trousers quickly down his legs, and Napoleon lifted his hips to let the material pass. They were flung in the same direction as the shoes, and Illya's damp gold head bowed again, scanning Napoleon's exposed thighs with a scientist's gaze. His fingers brushed across the skin, reading the texture. Napoleon leaned back on his hands, and the falling water caressed his overloaded senses, flooded his eyes and ears, masking the world in a steady soft roar of sound. He felt the nimble hands at the waist of his undershorts, slipping them off, opening him to the touch of water and to those knowing fingers somehow both alien and familiar.
He was getting hard, hard to bursting, and he didn't care. He didn't have a thought left for what he was or wasn't supposed to feel. He gasped in a mouthful of air through parted lips, tasting the flat shower water slippery on his tongue. The strong touch skimmed over his cock, his scrotum, along the quivering muscle of his lower belly. To the tails of his shirt. Up to his throat to unfasten buttons and loosen the leftover scrap of his tie. He felt the length of Illya's body along his own, kneeling astride one of his outstretched legs, leaning close to pull off the remnants of the sodden clothes.
The steady inner voice wasn't speaking to him now, it was keening--a long, low cry of thirst and eager uncertainty. And if there was one thing Napoleon Solo knew, it was how to obey his intuition. He pushed up off his hands, his eyes closed tight against the water, and clamped his arms around Illya's body. He thought that one of his wrists might still be caught in the sleeve of his poor bedraggled shirt. No matter. He roughly pulled his partner close. His partner, the other part of himself. He had discovered just that morning how alone he was in his own skin, and he couldn't bear it. Burrowing into Illya's strong neck, he found the pulse-point there. Listened to it. Felt it against his cheek. Sank into it.
The muscular body was awkward in his arms. The wet wool of the turtleneck rasped across his nipples as Illya shifted against him. Napoleon was beyond reason, beyond will, but if he could have spoken, his only words would have been Please. Please. Please.
It was Illya's voice, rough and low, speaking the only word left in Napoleon's buzzing brain. His word was their word. And as Illya surged forward, pressing him down to the wet tiles, Napoleon realized that his need was their need. Union.
He spread himself under his partner's body, and without asking or planning he found that Illya moved in synch to accommodate him. Soaked fabric, with hardness beneath, ground against his cock in a short, strong rhythm. He dug his fingers into Illya's shoulders. His every push was met with an answer. The weight of Illya's body was comforting, draped heavily over him, and for once he felt safe.
Sparks flashed behind Napoleon's closed eyes; the friction between their bodies was vigorous and electric, shooting cold fire through his belly and along his limbs. He moved his lips soundlessly, mouthing wet strands of long hair, licking the curve of an ear. Blood leapt and thundered in the side of Illya's neck, throbbing in him and through them both. Napoleon was lost. And he was found. He no longer really knew whose back was against the coldness of tile and whose felt the relentless needles of the water's spray. Whose cock was bare and slick with need, and whose rubbed against the inside of trousers. Who was who. And it didn't matter.
The tempo built, insistent, steadily rising. Breath panted and hissed against hot, wet skin. Teeth snapped closed spasmodically, inflicting and receiving quick soft bites, fleeting fragments of pain gladly accepted, firing the frenzy. And in the center of both minds--the single mind--grew a scene vivid in its sheer breathless desire: a future time, the two intertwined, this time penetrating and being penetrated. Fucking and being fucked, thrusting hard and fearlessly, fevered bodies tangled into one. Timeless. Effortless. Fusion. Beneath the curtain of falling water, long, muffled groans burst from two throats, two sets of arms convulsed and tightened, hips taut, hands threading tight in wet tousled hair, semen pulsing over and over.
It was very quiet in the aftermath. Long, heaving breaths gradually fell out of synch, each man's system beginning to slow and settle. Napoleon came back to an awareness of himself, splayed beneath the warm, solid, muscled heap of his partner. His softening cock tingled, faintly sore from the enthusiasm. He opened his eyes reluctantly into the spray from the yellow showerhead. He was himself again...but for a moment there, he had been more. He had had more. Glorious.
Too glorious, he thought suddenly, uneasily. He knew he hadn't shaken the desire to step outside of himself, to let go of his hard-won self-reliance and completely trust his better half. He was well and truly hooked. Two-in-one. He needed this partnership, and if he couldn't keep it...He listened hard for any word from the depths of his intuitive mind. Tell me I did the right thing, he pleaded. Tell me it's going to be okay.
His inner voice was quiet. Sated, probably. Ready to sleep it off. Napoleon felt a chill trickle of unease seeping into his bloodstream. Just then the body atop him stirred, shifted, and pulled away. Illya, looking dazed, stiff, and wet to the bone, settled back on his haunches. He regarded Napoleon silently, his pupils large and dark across the pale background of his eyes.
At last, he spoke: "No signs of the X twenty-four B having penetrated the skin."
"Ah-hah." Napoleon matched his gravity. "You're sure?"
Illya nodded, rivulets of water streaming from his sopping hair. "A thorough inspection showed no ill effects."
Napoleon lifted one brow. "A thorough inspection."
And wonder of wonders, Illya grinned. Rare, so far, to see that wry, pleased look on his face. A man could get used to it. The fledgling unease in Napoleon's middle died a quick and unlamented death, replaced by an upsurge of relief. He smiled--it felt smug, but he couldn't help himself.
They clambered to their feet; Illya turned off the shower. The white noise of the water died away into a gurgle and then a startling silence. They stood, dripping, looking at each other. Napoleon rolled his shoulders, eased his neck muscles, and lifted his left arm; from his wrist dangled his wet shirt, turned inside out during the hasty removal attempt. He delicately peeled it off and dropped it to the floor with a splat.
"Good heavens." Illya tugged at the hem of his turtleneck decorously, his accent pronounced. "You're completely naked."
"Completely." Napoleon shivered, casting a woeful eye along the workbench. "And likely to remain so, unless you can conjure new clothes for me out of one of those flasks."
Illya pulled off the wet lab coat he was still wearing and let it fall. "I'm afraid my scientific training never extended so far."
Napoleon eyed the scattered remains of his clothes with distaste. "Pity. I suppose I'm destined to salvage what I can of those."
But his partner was moving with purpose, sloshing across the floor to a wall cupboard. "Here." He pulled down the one remaining lab coat and lightly tossed it to Napoleon. "Dry off. After I change I can go get you some fresh clothes, if you'll give me your locker combination."
"Why, Mr. Kuryakin," Napoleon said innocently, rubbing the soft cotton coat over his bare chest and arms. "We hardly know each other."
Illya smiled. "We know each other now," he replied. "We'll learn each other later."
Napoleon ran one hand through his hair, slicking it back from his face. "My friend," he said with satisfaction, "this is going to be some kind of partnership."
And of course, that it was.