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Critical Distance

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Of all of Napoleon's possible reactions that Illya had so carefully weighed and considered before he had spoken – including a right cross to the jaw – this hadn't quite been one of them. He stared at the American. "'No'? Just…'no'?"

 

Napoleon sighed but otherwise didn't move, standing to one side of his apartment window, hands jammed into his trouser pockets. "Just…'no'."

 

Illya shook off his paralysis with an effort and took two steps forward. "Why?"

 

His partner's dark head snapped around. "For the sake of our friendship, I'm going to ignore that tone," Napoleon said finally, his voice deceptively even. "It doesn't require a form in triplicate, Illya. You made me an offer, and one by which I am very, very flattered; please don't doubt that in any way." Hazel-brown eyes softened; his gaze ran down and up Illya's body as if Napoleon couldn't quite help himself, before he turned back to the window. "But the answer must be 'no.'"

 

A-ha. Illya moved until he was close, inside his partner's personal space. The Russian definition of personal space, which was about two feet smaller than the American one. Close enough to share body heat. "Napoleon," he said, feather-soft, his voice as steady as his nerves were not. And he saw Napoleon react to it in ways that could not be hidden, not from Illya, who had studied this man too long and too well. "I need to understand, droog moi," using his mother tongue quite deliberately. "Do you not – find me attractive?"

 

Napoleon breathed deep and raised his chin, but didn't look at Illya. "The blind and dead find you attractive, partner."

 

Warmth trickled down Illya's spine. "And aren't we friends?"

 

"My best friend. You know that."

 

"Then why will you not share with me what you will share, have shared, with almost everyone else?" Illya let the hurt, and the longing, wash into his voice this time.

 

Napoleon leaned his head against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut. "Because you are my best friend."

 

It was as if the words weren't in English, or any other language Illya knew. "Because…" he repeated slowly.

 

Abruptly Napoleon was elsewhere, slipping away from Illya like the consummate secret agent that he was. "Yes, because," he said from the vicinity of the bar, where the clink of crystal proclaimed his actions. "Drink?" he asked in a horribly normal tone of voice. "Gin? Brandy? Or I've got your good stuff in the freezer."

 

They were actors in a play and it was a farce, presenting desperate normality around the elephant in the room. "Vodka, then; thank you," Illya managed to say.

 

Napoleon disappeared into his tiny kitchen and Illya made his way over to sink down onto the hound's-tooth couch, the ugliest and most comfortable piece of furniture in the room. Napoleon wasn't fond of it, said it had come with the apartment, but Illya loved it. He'd even slept on this couch a few nights rather than make the stagger back the three floors to his own place; slept here safe, surrounded by his partner's things, by the very smell of Napoleon's skin that lingered in the fabric –

 

A lowball glass and a clear bottle, cloudy with frost, appeared on the coffee table before him. Illya poured automatically, by sound, and tossed it back, the icy alcohol hitting his throat and stomach in a welcome explosion of heat and, paradoxically, clearing his head. He set the glass back down on the table with a solid click and fixed his gaze on Napoleon, who now sat across the table from him in the worn leather wingchair. "We are neither of us small children, Napoleon, although with you I sometimes wonder." The casual insult won Illya a small quirk of his partner's mouth. "'Because' is not a reason."

 

"You're not going to leave this alone, are you?" Napoleon sighed, tilting the snifter of dark liquid he held in his left hand.

 

Illya just raised an eyebrow, figuring that was answer enough.

 

"You're right; I have 'shared' a lot. Variety is the spice of life, after all. And for that variety, I must be casual. Everyone I date knows the score beforehand; I make sure of it. We meet, we touch, we have fun, we part again." A sad, knowing smile touched the generous mouth for a moment before vanishing. "You and I, though, would have trouble with the 'parting' part, I think."

 

Illya raised his chin. "Well, perhaps it's hubris, but I think that I know enough 'variety' that 'parting' would not be an issue. And what I do not know, you can teach me. You are a passionate man, Polya, in many ways, but don't you ever tire of moving on? You were not meant to be alone."

 

'But I wasn't meant to stay, either." Napoleon half-smiled. "Do you know …," he took a healthy swallow from his glass. "Did you know that you are the longest relationship I've had since my wife?"

 

Illya's breath caught in his throat. Only once before in the decade of their partnership had Napoleon mentioned his wife, and he'd been blind drunk at the time.

 

"When she died, the world went with her. It was a long time before I tried again. And when I did, history repeated itself."

 

Bozhe moi.

 

"And then Clara…." Napoleon tossed back the rest of his drink, and then stared down into the empty glass as if it held the secrets of the universe. "Fortunately the job drove her away in time." A deep breath. "I can't afford to care like that again, Illya. I'm not even sure now if I'm still capable of it. People I truly love – if I sleep with them, they have this habit of dying. You mean far, far too much to me to ever take that chance."

 

Napoleon … loved him. Napoleon loved him.

 

Illya's heart stopped, and then jerked to life again with a wrench that hurt something inside his chest. He rose slowly to his feet and moved around the coffee table to sink to his knees beside Napoleon's chair. He laid one hand on the American's thigh and felt hard muscle shiver beneath his fingers. With the other hand he reached, removing the glass from Napoleon's hand and setting it on the floor, and then reached again to lay his palm against the side of his partner's face. Napoleon closed his eyes, but didn't turn away.

 

The fingers cradling Napoleon's cheekbone, Illya noted almost distantly, were trembling. He had one chance and only one, he sensed, to get this right.

 

"Napoleon." Was that a tremor in his voice, as well? "This is me. Illya. Your partner. Yes, the world being what it is, I could die tomorrow. So could you. But consider this: the best in the world have tried to kill me, repeatedly, and I am still here. Right here, beside you. Do you really think that you, or whatever destiny you think haunts you, could succeed where they have failed?"

 

Napoleon's eyes opened wide and his lips parted in surprise. The moment drew out as they stared at each other, and then slowly, reluctantly, Napoleon's mouth began to curl up at the edges. "When…." He cleared his throat. "Well, when you put it that way…."

 

"Besides, it is too late, you know. You already care like that, and so do I," Illya whispered, triumph singing through his veins. "Take the chance."

 

The beautiful brown eyes searched Illya's own for what felt like years. Then Napoleon closed them again and lowered his head to rest his forehead against Illya's, his breath warm and brandy-sweet against Illya's face. "All right."

 

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