Illya Kuryakin knew before opening his door that he would see a dark head in the corner of his couch, with a tumbler of scotch on the side table. He had seen that one light on in the living room from below in the street, and enemy agents preferred, when breaking into one's apartment, to bring their own, more narrowly revealing sources of light. So he didn't startle any more than the head bothered to turn around, and calmly returned his firearm to its holster as he heard a similar scrape of leather from the couch.
The expected fresh bottle of vodka was lying next to the opened one in the freezer, with the glass he never used waiting on the counter. He put the glass away as usual and took the opened bottle with him into the living room, where he nudged a shoe out of his way before sitting beside its owner on the sofa.
They sat in silence for a few moments, then he took a swallow from the bottle and his companion took a sip from his glass.
"So how did this one choose to break your heart, Napoleon?" His companion smiled at his scotch, as if to say Of course you would know why I'm here. The smile was, however, brief.
"The usual. No desire to wait and see if I survive until I'm forty. She can't blame me for making the world safe for her to sleep at night, and I can't blame her for wanting someone who can promise to come home from his business trips."
"Did she try to convince you?"
"Nah, this one tried to let me down gently."
"Ah, the worst kind." There was something singularly awful, in Illya's opinion, about watching a woman spend an evening telling you all the nice things she hadn't yet found time to say; filling one dinner with all the sweetness she could, taking her last chance to remind herself of all the reasons she would rather not do what she is determined to anyway. One felt, once the words were said, while she was still waiting for you to accept and pretend that no harm was done, sickly relieved that the night long pretense was over.
Napoleon replied only with another swallow of scotch, and Illya eyed the level of fluid remaining in Napoleon's bottle. Then he turned his mind to considering the state of his laundry and whether he had left a spare suit in Napoleon's apartment. His reverie was interrupted soon enough.
"Is your way any easier, Illya?"
"Easier? On my pocketbook, certainly."
"I don't mean easier on your wallet. These evenings never seem to start at my place."
"True enough." Illya sighed quietly. "But it is impossible to quantify heartache any more than heart's ease, so how would I begin to answer? Whether a woman is begging you to open your heart to her or forcing you to learn to close it again, the slings and arrows find their mark."
"If you're going to read Shakespeare, there are happier pieces you can find."
"Comedies just make you long for the things you don't have." Napoleon only replied with a grunt.
Illya swirled the vodka in his bottle and took a longer swallow than usual. After a few moments, he spoke again, but more quietly.
"It was bad enough that Marion complained about the work and your schemes and decided it was easier and safer to just treat me as a friend's toy she could play with for a while. But Tavia cried, Napoleon. She cried at every new bruise and scrape, looked desperately afraid if I was delayed and never said a word of condemnation. She would have waited, she would have stayed and she would have expected me to be... I don't know. Relieved, perhaps, when it is all over."
Neither of them really had a way to follow such a statement. Napoleon's head grew heavy, so Illya helped him into the bedroom. As usual. Brushed his own teeth and grabbed spare clothes for the morning, just in case he had forgotten to replace them last time. Turned off the lights, set the security, left the apartment and made his way up to Napoleon's, where the spare room awaited him with worn sheets that only he used.
In the morning, Illya would emerge from Napoleon's apartment and Napoleon from his, both in fresh clothes as if they had been at their own homes. They would meet in the garage and drive to work as usual, as if neither of them was nursing a hangover, and in the evening Illya would have to launder his pillowcases because they were covered in Brylcreem.
Illya suspected the reason his apartment was the venue every time had less to do with Napoleon being the supplicant and more to do with the fact that it allowed Napoleon a few moments in the morning to be someone else, in a different apartment, surrounded with different things. While they both kept a change of clothes at the other's apartment, Illya had populated a small cupboard with breakfast cereal and Russian blend tea that Napoleon never touched, and yet he found the same items had been used from his own cupboards after Napoleon had stayed the night. For a short while in the morning, Napoleon kept a different set of habits, even if he was perfectly polished by the time Illya met him in the garage.
Even if he didn't make up for it with new vodka for Illya's freezer every time, Napoleon was welcome to Illya's things. From the small extra expense in maintaining his breakfast foods to washing hair creme off the pillowcases again, Illya appreciated the sense that he was needed. In each other, they had something like family, until the day he and Napoleon retired from the field and wouldn't need each other any more.
Napoleon Solo scanned the large suite they'd been provided for the night, with the option to stay all weekend. Two master bedrooms and a sitting room with a small hearth and a stocked bar. Gratitude from the highest office in the land could be a rich currency, if a bit selective about where it could be spent. He would probably be needing to make heavy use of the hotel's complimentary amenities. "You know, Illya, it's one thing to have my communicator in my pocket for old times' sake, but I don't keep an emergency bag packed anymore."
"Speak for yourself, my office would be scandalized if I were seen with so much as a coffee stain on my cuff. Want me to call them with your measurements? I'm sure they could send someone to Washington with a suit for the morning."
"Isn't that asking a bit much of the proletariat, Illya?"
"Nonsense, the secretary loves her overtime pay, she will probably bring it herself."
"Still taking care of my mornings after, Illya? I guess old habits die hard," he said with a chuckle.
"That's the third time you've said my name, Napoleon. And it's easy enough to pull a habit out of the past."
"Well I haven't had much opportunity to maintain my old habits, but then I haven't had someone around who would have my suit cleaned with his and store it carefully in his closet for the next time I went on a bender. Illya."
"Your suits were never as annoying as my pillowcases."
"Ah yes, that is a problem I didn't discover until Mary left me. Never slept on Brylcreem again."
"I'm amazed. Did you shower while drunk, or did you make sure to do so before breaking out the scotch?"
"No, I also discovered that it was miserable to wake up to sheets that still smelled of Mary's perfume." Illya refrained from pointing out that Napoleon was suggesting he preferred sheets that smelled of Illya. No matter how good natured, he was sure the ribbing would be unwelcome at the moment. "So from then on I was kinder to my liver and spent those evenings moping in the laundry room. And then washing the girl out of my hair."
"And the Brylcreem with her."
"And the Brylcreem with her."
Illya paused, considered, then asked, "Five years?"
Napoleon nodded slowly. "Five years, and four miscarriages, and then Mary decided unilaterally that she couldn't put me through her pain anymore."
Napoleon gave a short snort of laughter. "Sometimes I wonder if she'd known you, if you were around, whether she would have stayed."
"Because you endured my pain, too?"
"Or because you'd endured mine, I don't know. Maybe just so she could complain about me to someone besides myself."
"Somehow I doubt that my ear would have been welcome. She was quite determined to get you away from UNCLE, and I think she might have accused me of bringing back bad memories."
Napoleon's voice turned softly affectionate. "The memories weren't so bad from where I was sitting."
"Perhaps. And perhaps she had a point, or would if you were any less of an optimist. You find it easier to remember good things." Illya's words had grown short and clipped.
Napoleon looked at him, remembering that only days before Illya had faced, and killed, his reason for leaving UNCLE. That the chance to do so seemed to have been the only reason Illya chose to return. Illya clearly had not found it easy to remember good things. But he dove right into the fight at the restaurant, Napoleon thought, clinging to the small hope it provided, even knowing that UNCLE had probably sent me to find him. And he didn't hesitate to help with Air Force One, once Janus was dead. Whatever had left Illya so bitter and angry that he'd even taken a swing at Napoleon about it, something of their partnership, at least, still mattered to him. There had to be good memories waiting somewhere in there.
Napoleon was startled by a knock at the door to the suite, but he calmed when Illya immediately and casually crossed to answer it with the peculiar expression of someone trying not to look smug. He had donned a natural expression again by the time he opened the door to admit a practical-looking young woman Napoleon had seen at Vanya's, burdened with a duffel and a garment bag.
"I've got everything you need, here, Mr. Kuryakin. Toiletries, shoes, clothes. I took the liberty of including formal wear in case you need to go anywhere special."
"Ah, thank you, Susan, I trust it wasn't too much trouble."
"Traffic was as bad as ever, but you're the one paying me to endure it." Napoleon's mouth quirked, recalling Illya's earlier comment about the secretary, beginning to realize that the offer of supplies must have been serious. The girl probably even had one of those portable phones in the company car, so she would have been able to stop by a store to get whatever additions Illya made to his order before even arriving at the hotel.
The secretary didn't stay long, though Napoleon offered her a drink. She excused herself, saying she needed to keep her head clear for the drive home, and smiled brightly at the Russian as he held the door for her to exit.
"You seem to inspire a lot of loyalty in the proletariat, tovarisch."
"I simply choose my employees with care, my friend." Illya spoke absently as he hung the garment bag in the closet of his room and fiddled with the zipper.
"Like that blonde model I met in your, ah... office?"
"Blonde? You must mean Katrina." A grin slowly spread over his face as Napoleon fidgeted. "She flashed you, didn't she?"
"Ah, she's a, ah, not a very self-conscious girl. She didn't bother to go into a changing room before talking to me. Or throw something on. Or turn around."
"You were backstage during a show. The girls don't find modesty exceptionally practical."
"None of the rest of them conducted conversation in the nude."
"Yes, well, Katrina seems to be more of a free spirit than most. Here, see how this fits." Illya handed Napoleon a tuxedo, earning a strange look as Napoleon considered how to point out that it would be even harder for them to share clothes now than it would have been fifteen years before. But before the American could speak, he noticed that a second tuxedo was already lying on Illya's bed.
"Illya. Ah. Should I be surprised if this thing fits perfectly?"
"Certainly, a perfect fit is hard thing to come by."
"Do I want to know how you obtained my measurements?"
Illya smiled with a distinctively feline look of satisfaction. "Go and make sure they are accurate. I'll put the rest of your share of the oppression of the working class in your room."
Napoleon changed in his own bathroom, confirming his partner's surreptitiously obtained measurements, and stared at himself in the mirror for a few moments. Illya had prepared for everything, long enough in advance for the secretary to bring everything from New York. He had to have called her as soon as the mission was completed. The tuxedo and whatever suit waited in the bedroom must have been finished already.
A little unsteadily, Napoleon left the bathroom, glanced at the amenities laid out on the bed, and walked into the sitting room where Illya smirked as he poured himself a shot of Stoli. In the middle of the bar sat a tin of tea and a small box of cereal, next to teacups, bowls and spoons. As Illya put the vodka bottle back in the fridge, Napoleon saw it also contained a quart of milk.
Abandoning the shot of vodka on the bar, the Russian walked around to examine Napoleon's tux. "Not a perfect fit. But quite good enough. I don't think you will need to use it, but one can get away with more in a suit."
The words, only choked out with difficulty, quietly passed Napoleon's lips. "Why, Illya?"
The blue gaze lifted to meet the hazel one as the smile drifted off the Russian's face. He swallowed dryly, then reached back without looking and took the shot of vodka awaiting him on the bar. Tossing it back, he swallowed again, returned the glass to its former place and leaned on the bar with his eyes closed. Napoleon found a chair and sat, heavily.
"You know that Yugoslavia ended poorly," Illya began. "I was betrayed by my backup, and I watched him take the life of a young maiden whom I had just told she would be safe in his hands. Upon debriefing, I was instructed by Mr. Waverly to withold full detail from my report as the spectacularly effective defection of Janus might have a demoralizing influence on my colleagues." Illya's lip curled slightly with disgust. "And then I was graciously granted an extended paid leave, and sent home."
Napoleon began to suspect where the story was going, and thought of the scent of roses in a cold bed.
"My apartment was empty, the bottle of vodka in my freezer was nearly so. I had nobody else's feelings to focus on, and no laundry to do in the morning. It became very clear to me," Illya swallowed dryly again, "that the last person who needed me had died at the hands of the last person I had been ordered to trust. And I no longer had anyone to trust, nor anyone who needed me."
Illya pulled his eyes from the floor, only to stare at the ceiling. "I knew it was cynical, but I decided that if I was going to live a pretense, I didn't want to play the part of hero and savior anymore. There is some safety in a more shallow life."
"So. Fashion design."
Illya finally began to smile again. "Yes, fashion design. Where the models pretend to be confident, the photographers pretend to be artists and the designers pretend to be pretty princesses."
Napoleon struggled to maintain a serious expression. "Ah. Yes. And do you, Illya Kuryakin, ah. Do you feel like a pretty princess?"
Illya began to tremble with poorly controlled mirth, but his voice remained steady as he said, "Surely, Napoleon, you must know that I am the prettiest princess of them all."
They managed to look at each other for another second or two before erupting in wildly uncontrollable laughter. Fueled by the strain of the foregoing confessions, they kept laughing until they were sore and gasping. The sheer relief it provided seemed to be dizzying all on its own.
Once he'd recovered, Napoleon went to the bar and made himself a martini, and pulled out the bottle of Stoli to hand to Illya. They both settled with their drinks in front of the hearth, which Illya had discovered was actually a gas fire but better than nothing. After a while, Napoleon broke the silence.
"I do mean it when I say I'm sorry, Illya. Even when seeking a new family, it's foolish to abandon the family you have."
Illya looked at him, smiling sadly. "I don't think I realized that myself, back then."
Napoleon shook his head. "We all need to be needed. You were more aware of that than I." They sat in silence for a while, then Napoleon looked at his partner. "Illya."
The Russian returned his look with mock suspicion. "What is it?"
"Ah, you know, I'm getting old."
Hazel eyes began to dance as the American elaborated. "Oh, terribly old. Decrepit, even. I'm not sure if you know what that means."
"Do tell me what it means, Napoleon."
"Well, it means that I won't always be able to see to my own welfare."
"Says a man who was fighting men twenty years his junior last week."
"Ah, but such mobility won't last forever, Illya. We don't all have a portrait in the closet."
"I don't keep my portrait in any place it could be so easily stolen, Napoleon."
"And a good thing too. But you realize, my sister's children all live in California."
"How are your relatives' living arrangements relevant to this discussion of your encroaching infirmity, my friend?"
"Well, I'm coming to that. You see, some day I might just fall and ...break a hip. And I could just be lying there, Illya, without assistance, and nobody to know."
"Oh I see. What a predicament, and one you are so likely to be in after trying to capture a date."
"Capture...?! What are you talking about?"
"When she runs out on you upon discovery of your occupations with another young lady the previous evening. And they're both half your age, shame on you Napoleon."
"Ha ha, very funny."
"So what do you propose to do about this vulnerability of yours?"
"Now, that is very simple. I just need to be certain to have someone around who might miss me. Perhaps someone who knows that there's a bottle of Stolichnaya awaiting him in the freezer."
"And how often should this someone come by to make use of your alcohol?"
"A person can dehydrate very quickly when they're helpless. He should probably visit at least every other day."
"I see. And perhaps he should ensure that you have enough to eat. Old people like yourself frequently have very poor nutrition. A hot lunch every few days would be wise to ensure you have sufficient sustenance."
"Certainly. Seems to be a sound plan on all points."
The agents grinned at each other like the little boys they undoubtedly still were and finished their drinks with a mix of conversation and comfortable silence. Afterward, they repaired to their separate rooms, a little easier at heart than either had been for a long time.
In the morning, Napoleon thought with delight, he would wake in a strange bed and dress in a suit Illya had prepared for him. Even the pajamas must have come from Vanya's, they had the same scent as the suit and the tuxedo he now carefully removed. In the morning, Napoleon revised the thought, he would wake in pajamas that smelled like Illya's work, dress in a suit that Illya provided, and he would have breakfast cereal and he would have Russian blend tea.
And he would have it with family, because Illya would be there too.