This takes place six months after the end of the Return movie.
The penthouse boasted a broad view of the Thames and the city, cluttered and grey under the cloudy spring sky. Napoleon could feel the cold from the brewing storm beating against the glass, although the penthouse itself was climate-controlled to a perfect 72 degrees. He smiled at his faint reflection in the tempered plate glass, thinking how very like Illya that was. He preferred to ruthlessly master his surroundings when he could — and when he could not, he ignored them, brushed them aside and kept moving.
Napoleon sipped his scotch, feeling a little ill. Is that why we’ve come to this? Am I one of those things he decided to brush aside because he couldn’t control me?
The room was big and airy, decorated in a sleek modern style in rich colors. An American woman — “I’m Agnes, Mr. Kuryakin’s assistant—” had shown him in through the stark elegant foyer into the equally impressive parlor.
Young — maybe 30 — pale, thin, tallish, with light hair in a ponytail, Agnes had stopped in the middle of the room, watching him, apparently as unsure as Napoleon about exactly how welcome he was.
“Please make yourself comfortable,” she’d said. “Mr. Kuryakin will be with you as soon as he can.”
Napoleon took a hefty belt of the scotch she’d given him, then held the glass before him, watching the amber liquid dance. So much for nerves of steel. If he’d ever believed the adage once a spy always a spy, he didn’t any more. True, his reflexes, his body — muscle and nerves — remembered. It had come back without effort once he was in the thick of things with Sepheran. Having Illya at his side, too, had come back — like getting back a limb that had been severed years ago.
And the second case, the Air Force One Affair, had come so hard on the heels of the first there’d been no time for either of them to think, let alone have second thoughts.
Or so he’d believed. Until Illya, seated at his side in Sir John’s office, had finished his report on their triumph, stood up, removed his badge and walked out.
Turning to smile at the hovering Agnes, Napoleon scanned the room, wondering if his ever-versatile former partner had designed the furniture. The place was done in greys and rusts and browns and cream. Severe colors, not frivolous, but somehow comforting.
“He’s in a phone meeting,” Agnes said. “Emergency in the Los Angeles boutique.”
Napoleon felt his mouth quirk. “A fashion emergency?”
To her credit, she chuckled. “No. On the business end. Mr. Kuryakin likes to keep an eye on ...”
“Everything,” Napoleon finished. She smiled.
“You know him, then,” she said, and Napoleon wondered what Illya had told her, if anything, about the man who’d appeared a quarter hour ago, uninvited and unexpected, in the lobby 30 floors below.
“How long have you been Mr. Kuryakin’s assistant?” he asked, careful to keep any innuendo out of his tone.
“Four years,” she said.
“Do you like it?” he asked, thinking at least she probably wasn’t Illya’s lover. She’d be calling him by his first name if they were sleeping together. The thought lightened the burden on his heart, and he wondered yet again at his own years-long stupidity.
She pursed her lips. “It’s a challenge.”
Napoleon laughed, startling her. She seemed a little timid — it was odd to think she’d lasted four years with his famously irritable partner. Ex-partner.
“Sorry. Please go on.”
“I was going to say it’s a challenge but in a good way. Mr. Kuryakin demands a great deal from every employee. He’s not very tolerant of laziness or stupidity.”
“Really?” Napoleon said drily. It would have galled him to think that that was why Illya had left half a year ago, but he knew that wasn’t the reason. Though his methods and personality differed, he too was a perfectionist. They’d never have lasted as partners otherwise.
“But he’s no harder on his people than he is on himself.”
“His people,” Napoleon echoed. “Sounds like a king.”
“Of Vanya’s, he is,” she said. “He works all the time. All the time.” Admiration and wonder blended in her tone. “Except for that vacation he took six months ago—”
“Vacation?” Napoleon said, surprised.
“Yes. He never takes vacations. Not in the four years I’ve been with him, and I’ve talked to people who’ve worked for him for a decade.”
At that, Napoleon thought if she wasn’t his lover, it wasn’t for lack of will on her side.
“He never takes breaks. Never. Then last year, he took off three weeks. He never said where he was going, either. Just went. Then came back and started working again.” She blinked. “I’m so sorry, I’ve been jabbering. May I get you a drink or something to snack on? Mr. Kuryakin shouldn’t be long.”
Illya came in via a hallway across from the foyer, stopping with the width of the room between himself and Napoleon.
Agnes got up, looked at her boss, looked at Napoleon.
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Solo,” she said, apparently sincere.
“Nice meeting you too, Agnes.” He gave her his patented rakish grin and she smiled, then headed for her boss.
“Do you need anything?” she asked.
Eyes on Napoleon, Illya said, “No. You can go.”
She hesitated, gave Napoleon a glance and a smile, then nodded at Illya and disappeared down the hall.
Napoleon drank in the sight of his long-absent friend. Illya wore jeans and a black sweater, no shoes, the ensemble making him look at least a decade younger than his 49 years. Despite his job he’d clearly not succumbed to the siren song of fashion. That realization made Napoleon’s chest clench. That’s my partner.
“Napoleon.” Illya’s voice was warm without conveying any welcome — nor any hostility. “You’re looking well.”
Napoleon raised his hand, feeling the tense muscles of his arm jerk as he gestured at the penthouse. “I had no idea the frock business had been so good to you.”
“It’s a living,” Illya said, toneless.
“At least.” He lowered his arm. “Do you mind meeting me in the middle somewhere?” He indicated the couches and chairs grouped in the center of the room. “I hate having to shout.”
Illya came forward awkwardly, wary.
“Did Sir John send you?” he asked.
Napoleon met his suspicious stare. “No, he didn’t.”
Blue eyes blinked, warming a little, but only about half of the tension left Illya’s body. “I’m sorry. Sit down, please.”
He indicated the sofa and Napoleon sat, elbows on his knees, staring at the glass he now held between both hands. He saw a couple of brown spots. Age spots. They made him conscious, not of his own mortality — when had he ever thought of that? — but of wasted time.
“How have you been?” he asked, not looking up. Illya was somewhere behind him, possibly at his drinks cabinet — Napoleon heard the confirming clink of ice against glass, glass against glass.
“Excellent,” Illya proclaimed. The air echoed with the hollowness of the statement. “Just wonderful,” he added in a lower tone. Napoleon heard a bottle hit a shelf, hard.
“Who are you trying to convince?” he asked quietly.
“I’m not coming back,” Illya said, still behind him.
Napoleon sighed. He had the faint comfort that Illya was still able to read his sighs; the Russian came around the couch and plunked down in front of him, in a chair. He met Napoleon’s gaze, his own cold as the frosted glass of vodka in his hand. Still not a trace of gray, Napoleon thought, nor hint of a wrinkle. His years and experiences showed only in his eyes.
“I am not coming back to UNCLE,” he repeated.
“I heard you the first time,” Napoleon said.
“No you didn’t.” Illya’s eyes and words pinned him, tight, intense. “Because the first time was 15 years ago, and you weren’t there.”
“Is that what this is about?” Napoleon was astounded. “This is about my leaving UNCLE before you did?”
“I don’t know what this is about,” Illya said, cold. “You came to me. You appeared at my door, uninvited.”
Napoleon had gone after him, of course. He’d jumped up, ignoring the burning pain of his leg injury — The Air Force One Affair had been a success, but not a perfect one — and limped out after his partner.
He caught up with him at the secret door to the novelty shop that let them back into the outside world. He seized Illya’s arm, feeling the iron tension under his fingers.
The Russian stopped.
“What’s going on?”
Illya turned frigid eyes on him. “I quit. Again. End of story.”
But Napoleon, well aware that he had done nothing to earn that icy stare, knew it for the smokescreen it was. He tugged Illya’s arm gently.
“Come on. I’m too old and creaky to beat it out of you. Talk to me.”
At the mild words Illya turned his face away, eyes closing.
“Napoleon...” The pain in his voice penetrated Napoleon’s heart. “Let me go.”
Stunned, as much in shock as if he had been stabbed literally, Napoleon let his hand fall from Illya’s arm, had watched, sick, as his partner walked out of UNCLE.
“I’m not here to ask you to come back to UNCLE.”
Illya seemed surprised. “Are you ... are you still working for them?”
“Yes. It makes me feel more ... alive.” Only to Illya would he admit such a weakness.
Illya spat a Russian curse. “Yes. Until it kills you.”
Napoleon shrugged. “Death’s inevitable. I find that I still want my life to count for something.”
“Nonsense. You’re a thrill seeker.”
Hearing the fondness in Illya’s words, Napoleon smiled. “That too.” He hesitated. Spit it out, fool. You’re half a century old. How long will you wait? ”I also find that ... that it all means a lot more to me when you are with me.”
Illya stilled. Napoleon forced himself to go on.
“That’s why I’m here. I waited. To see if you would contact me. If you would call or write or give me some sign that you weren’t through with me as well.” He shook his head, downed the rest of the scotch and let it burn away that other pain. “Then I couldn’t wait any more. So here I am. To ask you why you left. Again.”
Illya didn’t speak. Napoleon peeled another layer of defenses from his heart. It didn’t hurt as much as he’d expected.
“I don’t care about UNCLE,” he said. “UNCLE can take care of itself. I want to know ... I need to know why you left me .”
Illya closed his eyes. His expression — the same look that had pierced Napoleon’s heart in the novelty shop six months ago — made Napoleon’s throat close.
“Please,” he whispered, and Illya waved a hand, signaling surrender. When he spoke his voice was shadowed by pain.
“You said that UNCLE makes you feel more alive.”
“That is my problem. It made me feel ... too alive.”
Puzzled, Napoleon said, “UNCLE?”
Illya shook his head. “You. You are the reason I can’t come back.”
Napoleon stared. Blinked. Stared. Felt himself fill with ... with helium, to judge by the dizzy delirious feeling in his heart.
“Illya ... are you saying that ... that I’m the reason you left UNCLE last fall?”
“I am saying that you are my reason for leaving UNCLE. This time. And the last time.” Illya again shook his head, as if trying to shake sense into himself. “You—” He laughed bitterly. “You are always my reason.” He got up and flung himself away, toward the vast plate-glass vista of London’s rooftops.
Napoleon heard the words in his head, felt them swell in his chest: You are always my reason.
“I don’t think I understand,” he said. His hand shook as he set the empty glass down and got up, eyes on Illya’s back.
“And I’ve done all I could for decades to see to it that you continue in that state,” Illya said.
Napoleon came up behind him, not touching him. “You can trust me with anything, you know,” he said softly. “I would never hurt you.”
“You left me.” Beneath the even words lay a declaration of love, a child’s cry of betrayal.
Napoleon scowled, bewildered. “Illya...”
“It would have been enough...” Illya began. Napoleon watched his shoulders rise in a labored breath, ached to touch him, but feared to silence the words he knew had to be spoken. Instead, he fixed his eyes on the blond strands lying curled against the collar of the black sweater.
“It would have been enough if you had taken Waverly’s place, once you retired from the field. I would have seen you. Answered to you. I could have continued to ... pretend.”
Napoleon clenched his fists, feeling his eyes burn. Jesus Christ. Have I done this to him?
“That it was enough.” Illya hugged himself, scrubbed one wrist across his eyes. “When you left ... the way you left ...”
Napoleon remembered. A piece of paper for Waverly and, for Illya, a wave and the jaunty words: I’ll see you when you get back from Yugoslavia. But he hadn’t. He’d been in Los Angeles, starting the computer firm he still owned today. Starting a new life. Starting to drink too much to help himself sleep.
And Illya had come back from Yugoslavia, but not back to UNCLE.
And Napoleon hadn’t seen him again, until last year. 15 years, he berated himself. 15 years alone, because you were a coward. Don’t be a coward now.
Napoleon confessed, “I was afraid.” He let himself put his hands on Illya’s shoulders. “I was afraid to stay. And I was afraid to say good bye to you.” He pulled, and Illya resisted at first, then let Napoleon turn him.
“Afraid of the truth,” Napoleon went on. “Afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep from telling you the truth.” He recaptured Illya’s shoulders, squeezed, and Illya raised his head to meet Napoleon’s eyes. “I think, after all, that’s why I’m here. To apologize for being afraid to say that ... that I love you. Christ, I’ve been afraid for 15 years. I waited until I knew you were going on a mission because I knew that ... that you would ask me to stay with UNCLE. And I would have to tell you that I couldn’t ... because I had fallen in love with my partner.” He searched Illya’s face, desperate to know the truth, to know if what he’d hoped could possibly be true.
“Napoleon...” Illya was staring back, equally intense, equally desperate. “You ... you don’t...”
“I thought it was in the past,” Napoleon said. “I thought ... we could be ... just partners again. And ... it was good. Very good. Then you quit. You left, and my entire goddamned world crashed around my ears.” He shook his head, then shook Illya gently. “I came here to say ... don’t do this to me. Don’t leave me.”
“You didn’t give me the chance to say that to you 15 years ago,” Illya said softly. Napoleon let his hands fall from the Russian’s shoulders.
“I know. I’m sorry.” He looked askance at Illya. “Would you have said it?”
Illya’s gaze dropped from his, wandered a little. “I don’t know. It ... I was afraid, too, then.”
Napoleon inhaled, sighed. “Thank Christ for that.” He reached out again, wrapping his hands around Illya’s arms. “Let me make it up to you.” Illya opened his mouth and Napoleon went on. “I know, I have a lot to answer for. Years of stupidity. What can I do to make you give me a chance?”
Illya eyed him narrowly. “What if I left last fall just to give you a taste of your own medicine?”
“I don’t care,” Napoleon said, meaning it. “I deserved it.” Tentative, he raised one hand, touched Illya’s jaw. The blue eyes locked onto his.
“You left me in hell,” Illya said, low.
Napoleon shut his eyes. He could take the pain in Illya’s voice; what cut him was the lack of blame.
Struggling to keep his voice steady, Napoleon said, “It’s odd we didn’t run into each other there.” He drew in a breath, tried again. “I can’t give you one good reason to forgive me and start over...” He was silenced when Illya embraced him, laying his cheek against Napoleon’s to say in his ear:
“Napoleon ... le coeur a ses raisons ...” *
Napoleon seized him, pressing him close, feeling his eyes fill. “God ... I’m sorry. I—” Illya’s lips on his throat silenced him. Soft, tingling, electric as they pressed kisses up, over his jaw, stopping next to his yearning mouth.
Desire swirled through Napoleon as he slid a hand into Illya’s hair, clenching his fingers in the strands. He pulled Illya’s head back to meet blue eyes, looking as drunk as he felt.
“I love you,” he said, drawing Illya into a kiss.
The countless dreams he’d had over the years hadn’t prepared him for the warm vitality of Illya’s mouth against his, of the Russian’s body pressed close to him. At the touch of Illya’s hands, the caress of his tongue, Napoleon’s body sprang back to life, full, breathtaking life, and he knew he’d been as good as half-dead for a long time.
Aflame, Napoleon drew back, gasped out, “Do you have a bedroom?”
Illya’s eyes glittered with desire and amusement. “I have seven bedrooms, Napoleon. I own the top two floors.”
Napoleon shook him a little, letting his palms cup Illya’s behind. “Capitalist.”
Illya drew in a sharp breath as Napoleon squeezed him. “Lothario,” he accused in turn.
“Let me prove that to you,” Napoleon murmured, dusting Illya’s upturned face with light kisses. “Let me prove everything to you.”
Illya hmmed. “Well, we do have a lot of lost time to make up.”
Napoeon leaned back a little, head cocked. Illya smiled. Napoleon felt his old jaunty grin tickle his face as anticipation tickled the rest of him.
“Lead the way ... partner.”
* Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point
(The heart has reasons whereof reason knows nothing)
The reference to hell is paraphrased — that is, stolen — from The Lion In Winter.
Thanks to Di T. and Nataliya for saying “It doesn’t suck.”