“We need a sample, Mr. Solo.” When Napoleon started to roll up his shirt sleeve, the doctor stopped him with a hand on his arm. “No, we need a,” the doctor handed him a sample cup, “sample.” The doctor looked away quickly.
“Oh, ah, alright.”
The doctor left, shutting the door behind him.
Napoleon looked at the cup the doctor handed him and tried to figure out how he’d gotten to this place in his life. He’d read the paperwork, he always read the paperwork. He’d started keeping a calendar in his desk and for the last year and more he could pinpoint down to the hour how much time he spent at home in New York, how many nights he spent in foreign cities, who he went out with for dinner, who he had entertained in the privacy of their home and how many nights he had spent alone in his own bed. He could even see how many evenings he had spent in the company of his partner. Those instances had increased as his caution had grown. Contemplation of those evenings made him realize that he had started seeking out his partner’s company more often, not only for safety’s sake, but because Illya was good company, enjoyable in conversation and easy to relax around. But this wasn’t getting him closer to the goal at hand, so to speak.
Napoleon could hear people in the hall, doctors giving instructions, nurses walking by, the usual bustle of Medical. He tried to imagine pleasant circumstances that would induce the sample the doctor needed. Trying to remember the last young woman he had entertained only drew his thoughts back to the stress of wondering who was demanding his compliance this time. He would get a copy of the newest paperwork later, probably this afternoon, and he would know. Next he would compare this information to his calendar then his alibi, if it could be called that, would be set.
He sat back, closed his eyes and did his best to relax. He thought back to his days in the army and the adventures he had enjoyed as a much younger man, when life was a lot simpler. He thought about his first serious girlfriend and the exploring they did. He felt a stir of nostalgia, a pleasant buzz. It wasn’t enough.
Napoleon thought about the last few women he had dated, but he hadn’t really done more than take them to dinner, so he started to build a little fantasy. He imagined what might have happened rather than what had. There was a little more success with this tactic, so he took a deep breath and did his best to relax again. He could do this.
He was slowly building an imaginary encounter in his mind, piecing together an imaginary experience from memories of textures and feelings, trying to remember past pleasure in order to take care of business when a voice intruded on his quiet. It was a voice he knew, low and dark. He had heard that voice in every imaginable circumstance, well, almost every. He couldn’t make out the words and that didn’t matter, the familiarity of the voice, the comfort he felt, the secret rush of his pulse when he heard it was enough, his response was instant and he finished with a sigh. Satisfying this was not. The added concern now at allowing himself to react to that voice in the hall brought the tension returning to his shoulders and neck.
He stood, capped the sample jar and washed up. He checked the mirror above the sink and buttoned his suit coat, shooting his cuffs and taking the tissue wrapped jar in one hand and opening the door with the other.
“I trust you will get what you need from this, Doctor?”
“Yes, ah, thank you.” The doctor turned and rapidly disappeared down the hall.
“Come to rescue me from the evil clutches of Medical?” Napoleon turned to his scowling partner.
“Only in that I need you upstairs in our office and had to come looking for you.”
Considering what he had just experienced, Napoleon wasn’t sure he was ready to be locked alone in their shared office, but Illya obviously was not going to be concerned for Napoleon’s comfort level, not if the look on his face was anything to go by. Illya remained silent and scowling all the way to their office.
Napoleon led the way in the door and then stopped abruptly when he saw the addition to their office décor. A large chalkboard on wheels was against the far wall, the first thing he saw upon entering. It contained lists of names under categories he couldn’t quite make out from the door. Illya slid past him and flipped the chalkboard to reveal the pages of a calendar tacked up, notations and some sort of timeline in red ink and blue.
“What kind of assignment has Mr. Waverly got for us this time?”
Napoleon was stumped, until he took a step closer and recognised names and dates on the squares in the calendar pages. He turned toward his partner with an unreadable look. He knew Illya would never harm him, but was this helpful? He awaited an explanation.
“Your social life has come under some scrutiny, as you are well aware, and as it pertains to the safety of the organization and, more importantly, the stability of your place in that organization, I felt it was time someone gave you a hand with figuring out who is persecuting you, for this cannot be coincidence. There are entirely too many of these,” Illya tossed a pile of files onto Napoleon’s desk, they landed with a heavy thud, “for it to be anything but enemy action.”
Napoleon’s closed indifference became a little more wide eyed and a lot more puzzled. “What exactly do you mean, that there is someone or some plan behind all this?”
“There is a strong likelihood of the answer to that question being yes.”
“Well,” Napoleon gave his partner a wry look, “don’t beat around the bush, out with it, will you?”
“Someone, and I suspect an organization of unfortunate power and influence, is trying very hard to discredit you and doing so with insidious ease. That you haven’t succumbed and that our employer hasn’t demoted you is a credit to Mr. Waverly’s faith if not to your attention to careful detail. But what you and our employer have failed to notice is that you are not the only one whose reputation is at stake here. In fact, I will go so far as to point out that your best defense so far is one strategy that none of us considered and the very discredit that the organization in question is aiming to reveal.” Illya ran a hand through his hair and turned away from the increasingly puzzled gaze of his partner. “If there were actual evidence for the falsehood they so very much want to reveal, the game would have been up several months ago. Your very denseness has been your best defense so far.”
“And what exactly is it that I have been so dense about?” Napoleon’s voice was soft but Illya could hear the undercurrent of pure steel.
Without turning to face him, Illya answered his partner, “THRUSH is trying, with all these paternity suits, to prove that you are having an affair with,” there was a pause and Illya tried to keep his voice steady, “me.”
Napoleon dropped into his desk chair and stared for a long time at the stiff black clad back of his partner. Their silence may well have continued for hours if it weren’t for the interruption of a secretary arriving with yet another file. It was sealed, as they all had been, marked eyes only. She smiled at Napoleon as he signed for it then continued on her way never glancing at Illya or the posted papers on the corkboard.
Illya turned and took the pens from the top of his desk, then stood over Napoleon as he slit open the seals and opened the folder. Napoleon spread the papers out over the desk and unlocked the drawer that he kept his own calendar in, bringing it out to compare and add the new data. Napoleon was aware that he was going to need to address Illya’s theory, but he found himself hesitant, in danger of revealing too much, if this morning’s incident was anything to go by. As Illya collated his information with the records Napoleon had been keeping, illustrating on the corkboard the entirety of his partner’s social engagements, Napoleon read the newest suit and started comparing the details from it to the stack of past failed litigation.
Every one of the files in front of him was filled with standard boilerplate, the very repetition mesmerizing. The only islands of difference standing out were the dates of birth of the children and the names of the mothers. The oldest file was three years old, making the eldest child in question nearly four now. The first year of files contained the names and birthdates of four children, the second year there were six. This year alone there had been eight, this newest was the ninth such suit filed. Napoleon scrubbed one hand over his eyes, rubbing his temples with thumb and forefinger.
“And what makes you think that the point of all this is to put us in bed together?”
Illya whipped around and gave Napoleon a look that might have shriveled another man in his tracks.
“Well, you said it, not me.”
“Not quite like that, I didn’t.”
Napoleon only shrugged and closed the newest file.
The papers tacked to the corkboard had long run out of room; Illya had found a roll of butcher paper and taped several long strips to the wall. He had redrawn the timelines and now there were three, one for each year, notated with births, travel schedules and suspected dates of conception.
“Of the nineteen children you allegedly sired, nine of them were conceived during weeks you were out of the country, one was conceived while you were confined to Medical here at headquarters and nine were conceived while you were in my company, including the newest. The only thing that this has proved is that in the last two years you and I have spent too much time on affairs outside New York and that we spend a lot more time than that in one another’s company. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that you remain a very lucky man when it comes to child support requests. And that you are likely having an unnatural relationship with your work partner.”
“Do you think it’s unnatural?” Napoleon’s voice was quiet and perfectly calm.
Before Illya could remove the surprise from his eyes, the intercom buzzed and the pair were summoned to Mr. Waverly’s office.
Illya and Napoleon entered the office to find their employer looking out the only window in the building while the head of the Medical section stood to one side. Doctor Bennett turned when they walked in, but Mr. Waverly continued to gaze out the window for another moment. When he finally turned he waved a hand toward the couch and chairs arranged at one end of the generous office. “Please have a seat, gentlemen.” He nodded to the doctor who joined them, then Mr. Waverly went to his own desk and opened a drawer and took out a bottle and some glasses. Finally joining the other three and sitting his burden on the side table, he seated himself. He nodded again to the doctor who started to speak as Waverly poured brandy into the glasses.
“Mr. Solo, there is no way that you have fathered this or any child. I’m sorry that there is just no better way to explain this, but you couldn’t have fathered any of them.”
“Well, of course not. I’ve never even met half the women who have accused me of the deed, and the ones I did know, biblically or not, I didn’t see during the critical time frame. And I can prove it.”
As Napoleon drew breath to continue, Illya reached out and put his hand on his partner’s forearm, halting his further discussion as Napoleon turned to look at him, puzzled by the look he saw on Illya’s face.
“Dr. Bennett,” Illya said, “there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?” Now Napoleon was watching the doctor again, very aware of his partner’s restraining hand on him.
“I’m, ah, yes, that is,” the doctor didn’t seem able to marshal his thoughts, Waverly handed him a drink and the three watched as he took a burning sip of the liquor. “My apologies, gentlemen, this is not the circumstance in which I usually find myself having this conversation. I am slightly out of practice.”
“Quite all right, young man, please continue when you feel ready,” Mr. Waverly said as he took his pipe from his pocket and started to turn it over and over in his hands.
Bennett put the glass down on the coffee table and put his hands on his knees. Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward and looked directly at Napoleon. “Mr. Solo, you cannot father a child. Not these last nineteen, nor any in future. I am so very sorry to tell you that very likely due to the multitude of chemicals you have been exposed to over the course of your career with the UNCLE, you no longer have a viable fertility potential.”
“Viable…” Napoleon stopped, struck by the words like blows to his solar plexus. He never actively thought about having a family, hadn’t for many years at least. It always seemed that there would be time later for contemplation of those plans, once he was no longer in the field and was settled into whatever that change might bring, time later to think about some potential future, a legacy, that slice of immortality that children could represent. Wide eyed, he turned to Illya, realizing that he was not the only agent in the room that had been exposed to heaven knew what, that Illya certainly had more often been under the tender care of their enemies, more often injected and dosed and gassed by THRUSH. Illya mirrored his speechlessness.
Mr. Waverly pocketed his pipe again and passed glasses of brandy to the two men, taking his own and swallowing a healthy measure of it.
Napoleon drank the brandy, sat the empty glass gently on the coffee table and sat back against the couch. Illya did the same, much more quickly. There was silence as the other two men put down their drinks unfinished.
Dr. Bennett finally broke the silence, as if he felt he had to, “Mr. Kuryakin, we don’t know for certain, without tests, if the same is true, we can…” he stopped as Illya shook his head.
Illya looked at his partner, “This in no way negates my theory.”
Napoleon sat staring at nothing in front of him, “Yes,” his voice was completely without inflection, but tight as if the back of his throat were constricted, “your theory. Let’s talk about that theory.”
Illya shook himself, settling back into his agent persona. “I have noticed a pattern in these suits brought against Napoleon,” he started.
“Wait, I don’t think I can help, or, well, anything, here…” Bennett looked to Waverly who nodded and Bennett seemed relieved to get up from the chair. He paused and looked down at Napoleon, still staring forward. “If I can help, you want to talk, see the tests…”
“I know how to find your office.”
“Mr. Kuryakin, if you’d like to be tested, you…”
“I also know where you work, thank you,” Illya did not look up.
Illya waited for the door to close after the doctor, then stood to walk to the window Mr. Waverly had abandoned earlier. He stared out at the bright noonday city. “An illegitimate child is not as damaging to a man as it is to a woman, a certain amount of indiscretion is allowed, even expected in a man. The revelation of a child born out of wedlock and sired by Napoleon would hardly make him unfit for duty.” Illya began to pace from the window to the map on the wall and back. “Better would be to wait for him to tire of the game and finally claim a child as his then they could use him or her against Napoleon, force him from the field perhaps. But if that were the case, THRUSH has to know after three years that he is not going to do that. If their goal is not to discredit him with a bastard or to tire him into claiming one and leaving field work to avoid having the child harmed, there is only one more possibility I can see that might threaten him enough to force his hand.” Illya turned, hands flat on the conference table, eyes full of something cold and angry.
Waverly looked up with a mild expression, meeting that steel gaze. Napoleon continued to sit on the couch seemingly unaware of the ongoing conversation.
“Do continue, Mr. Kuryakin.”
“The last four incidents cited in these paternity suits, and in five others, I am Napoleon’s alibi. If THRUSH is aiming for anything here besides providing some fatherless children with a family, it is quite possibly to out Napoleon as a homosexual, which he patently is not. Even better for THRUSH, if they can prove that he is in this kind of relationship with me, that gets us both thrown out of UNCLE and accomplishes a goal they have long held, to be rid of us as UNCLE agents, perhaps permanently rid themselves of me at least, since your country does not have the harsh penalties that mine does for such behaviour.”
“They assume too much,” Waverly said, taking his pipe out again and taking the remainder of his brandy back to his desk to sit and start filling the pipe with tobacco. “They are assuming that homosexuality is forbidden within this organization, that any field agent would be pulled for such a relationship and that I would allow THRUSH to dictate my decisions.” He tamped the tobacco firmly into the bowl of the pipe and then reached for his matches. “You are well aware, Mr. Kuryakin, that partnerships of any kind romantic or not provide a lever that can be used against an agent.” He lit the match and took a few moments to draw the flame into the bowl, getting the pipe going good and strong before shaking out the match and dropping it into a heavy cut-glass ashtray. He sipped his brandy and then continued, “What my agents, what any of my employees do in the privacy of their own homes, or those of their lovers, is none of my business. As long as it does not interfere with the execution of ones duties, I don’t care what any of you are getting up to in private. You may be sleeping with as many partners as you want, or alone or with a stuffed teddy bear, as long as you report for duty when you are called, I will be satisfied.” Waverly took a deep drag of the pipe and leaned back in his chair.
Illya looked over to Napoleon who was still staring as if he had been frozen that way. He looked back to Mr. Waverly.
“I think your partner has had a shock, such news is not something that can be swallowed whole. And you may not be as unaffected as you think, young man. This is a terrible blow. Our Medical section will be investigating, of course, perhaps the damage can be reversed.” Waverly’s voice became quieter, taking on a kindly edge, “Take the man home, convince him that this is not a blow to his virility, if you can, hmm?”
“What about THRUSH’s latest suit?”
“Our lawyers have already prepared the necessary documents along with several copies of notarized medical records for future use. Mr. Solo will not be bothered again with these nuisance suits.”
“And the other?”
Both Illya and Alexander looked at Napoleon when he spoke.
“The plot to send Illya to a gulag in Siberia for unnatural acts and me out of UNCLE in disgrace?” Napoleon’s voice was still pinched, tight and uncomfortable against Illya’s ears.
“Ah, well, I have just the thing, you see,” Alexander puffed the pipe again, a cloud of fragrant smoke wreathing up around his head. “I have a pair of agents who are tasked with luring THRUSH into catching them in some vaguely compromising position and then when the inevitable blackmail occurs, we shall have THRUSH where we want them, and we will take several of them out of circulation. I hear the Arctic internment is lovely this time of year.”
Back in their office, the two cleared away the files and the timelines and locked the entire mess into the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet. As they finished the same secretary that had brought the last paternity suit file arrived with another file, smiling at both of them as she handed it off. When she had left, Napoleon opened the seals while Illya again stood at his shoulder.
“We’ve been instructed to take the next three days off.” Napoleon gave the handwritten note to Illya. “And if we try to arrive at work before Tuesday morning, we will be forcibly removed from the premises.”
“Mr. Waverly somehow thinks that written instructions will carry more weight than verbal?”
“Perhaps he does.”
“We shouldn’t disappoint him then.”
“No, it’s usually a bad idea to do that,” Napoleon stood and headed for the door, not looking back but knowing that Illya followed.
“Despite the fact that it was only a verbal instruction, there is no reason for you to take me right to my door, Illya.”
Illya only rolled his eyes and leaned against the doorframe while Napoleon unlocked his apartment door. When it swung open he followed his partner inside and took the paper sack he carried into the kitchen while Napoleon locked up and set the alarms. Illya was only now starting to hear the voice he expected from his partner. Napoleon’s voice was surprisingly versatile and very often the only indicator of his true mood. The tension that Illya had heard earlier was only now starting to ease, but was still lurking. Napoleon could, and very often did, mask his thoughts and emotions behind a smile or a sly look, a little misdirection or verbal sparring. But knowing what to look for, and listen for, was what made the partnership between them work. Illya hoped he was less transparent to Napoleon, at least in some respects.
“If you hadn’t wanted company, you wouldn’t have picked up the vodka.”
“Alright, you have me there.” Napoleon joined him at the counter, pulling a cupboard open and taking out two glasses and handing them to Illya. “You bartend, I’ll order dinner. Any requests?”
“Goes without saying, partner.”
Dinner was done and cleared away and they were each halfway through their chosen bottles of libation when they found themselves seated on the couch, shoulder to shoulder, as they usually ended up after a difficult affair. But there had been no mission, though they felt as if they had been put through a ringer backwards.
“It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it, Illya?”
“Spending our lives ensuring the safety of the world for future generations that we will never contribute to.”
Illya didn’t answer beyond raising his glass in Napoleon’s direction, then draining it, placing it on the coffee table with care.
They drank a few more in silence, then Napoleon spoke again, “You never answered my question.”
Napoleon’s voice was barely a whisper, “Do you think it’s unnatural?”
“In general, or in the specific?”
Barely a hint of sound now, “Yes,” Napoleon answered.
“No, Napoleon. Caring between two people, that is not unnatural, however it might be expressed.”
Napoleon’s only reply was a deep sigh, and then as if to himself, “Even if that caring is not,” he said, “usual?”
Illya wasn’t sure his partner was expecting an answer. He answered anyway, “What do you think is usual? It’s going to vary from person to person, Napoleon, and cannot be judged from the outside.”
“But it is judged from the outside, partner, judged and found wrong.”
“Privately, then,” Illya’s voice was quiet in the dark livingroom.
Napoleon was flooded with the memory of his morning, of the sound of his partner’s voice, words indistinct from the hall but timbre recognizable to him, familiar and known and appealing to him. He thought he’d had enough to drink that he could forget the moment, that release and rush of heat, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t forget and he couldn’t deny and he was just drunk enough that he no longer wanted to do either of those things. “Privately, no, caring is never wrong,” Napoleon’s voice was still a whisper of sound, weary with the day.
Napoleon was still trying to gather his courage to speak again when Illya turned to him.
“I should go. It’s been a very long day.”
“You should stay, there is still an elephant in the room.”
“I’m not that drunk, Napoleon.”
“Unfortunately, neither am I, Illya.”
Illya slouched back against the couch, tipping his head back and staring at the ceiling for a moment before letting his eyes close and letting out a resigned sigh.
“What if it isn’t just the most logical assumption that THRUSH could come up with from the facts at hand?”
“Are you saying that THRUSH was trying to prove a theory, not frame you?”
“I don’t think I can predict THRUSH that well, their thinking is often so convoluted that it makes no sense to relatively sane men. Assuming that I am relatively sane.” Napoleon leaned forward and poured another shot and drank it quickly before sitting the glass on the coffee table with a hard thunk.
Illya let his head fall forward again and addressed the back of Napoleon’s head as he sat forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at the empty glass he’d just put down, “Napoleon, are you telling me that you have a case of transference? You’ve decided that I am a safer choice than the secretaries and nurses you usually romance at work?” He let out a wry chuckle, “I would argue the opposite, for so many reasons.”
“No, Illya, it isn’t transference. Nor is it temporary or a phase or any other excuse I have tried to make myself believe.” There was a very long pause as neither man said anything more, lost in their own thoughts.
“I will,” Napoleon cleared his throat as if he could hide the threat of his voice cracking, “of course, understand if you feel the need to request a transfer.”
Illya mumbled something and Napoleon turned toward him, “I do speak enough of that language to understand you and I will have you know that I’m neither an idiot nor drunken, or not nearly enough yet in any case.”
Illya leaned forward until his nose almost touched Napoleon’s. “I wasn’t referring to you, Napoleon.” Illya leaned even further forward and pressed his lips to Napoleon’s, briefly, fleeting like the wings of a bird or the brush of a butterfly, then his touch was gone and he was leaning back against the couch again as Napoleon blinked and wondered if he’d passed out momentarily and dreamed it.
Another long silence passed before Napoleon spoke again. “Once you name the elephant, you have to keep it.”
“I don’t think that is how the legend goes, Napoleon.”
Napoleon’s voice was quiet and Illya recognised the tone as one his partner used when he was stalling for time to think up a strategy. He was contemplating that when he felt Napoleon move and then that voice was closer, lower, the voice Napoleon used when his mind was made up, smooth as water over river rocks.
“How do you want the legend to go, partner mine?”
Illya let his eyes open slowly, barely moving his head to see Napoleon close, one elbow leaned on the couch back, head leaning on his hand, a look of barely held patience in his partner’s eyes. Illya allowed the smallest smile to bloom and knew that Napoleon would see his answer in his eyes before he voiced it, and enjoyed watching the underlying uncertainty in Napoleon relax into something else entirely, something a lot closer to the man he was used to seeing, confident and secure. His smile grew.
“It’s been a few years since I had occasion to cross the street, Illya, but I promise to take my time…”
Illya interrupted him, “Oh, we’ll take our time alright, we don’t have to be anywhere for three days.” Surprise registered and then anticipation in Napoleon’s face, and Illya felt his smile break wide across his mouth, “Did you think this was my first rodeo, Napoleon?”
“Well, ah,” Napoleon leaned back, “where on earth do you learn these phrases?”
“Your decadent American television, Napoleon,” Illya leaned toward his partner, smile still growing and edging into predatory when Napoleon smiled in return and it was a mirror of his own. Napoleon met him coming and their kiss was explosive this time, seeking tongues and yielding lips and nipping teeth and hands that pushed and unbuttoned and bared even as the kiss kept on, fueling the urgency of their will to have skin on skin as soon as humanly possible.