“If you could,” Napoleon rubbed his thumb over the ring on Illya’s finger, “would you make it real?”
Illya turned his hand so that he could link his fingers with his partner’s. “It’s platinum, Napoleon, how much more real can it get?”
“The vows, Illya.”
Illya looked up then, Napoleon sounded pensive. This puzzled him.
“Napoleon, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, partner mine, I just wondered.”
Illya sat aside the book he had been reading, taking Napoleon’s hands in his. “Napoleon. The vows we swore are as real to me as any I have taken in my life. If you mean would I make them legal and official, yes, Napoleon, of course.”
Napoleon smiled then, and for a moment Illya saw again the young man he met so many years before, the same spark of devil danced in his expression and Illya smiled back, relieved.
“Will you marry me, Illya Nickovetch?”
“Yes, Napoleon Anthony, I will.”
Napoleon planned the trip to Massachusetts, Illya researched the requirements for the documentation they needed. When they got to the offices in Boston and picked up their license, they asked the young secretary to recommend some witnesses. Napoleon was charming, Illya was quiet and the girl volunteered, saying that she would bring a second witness along as well. They made plans to meet back at the Justice of the Peace office the next afternoon.
The day was crisp and cool, Autumn was approaching at speed. The former agents alighted from the taxi and both pulled their coats closer around them. There was a crowd on the steps of the building, disorganized but restless. An old man made his way up the steps and the crowd gathered, started waving signs and welcoming him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Solo, would you like to come with us in the back door?”
The men turned to find Miss Stevens and another girl. “Why would we go in the back door?” Napoleon asked.
“That so called Reverend there,” she nodded at the gathering around the old man, “he is going to start ranting soon, and getting in the front is already a trial. Those people show up every Friday to protest the weddings.”
“As you are our witness for today’s festivities, I feel we should escort you safely indoors, but we’re going in the front.”
Illya leaned close so the ladies wouldn’t hear, “Had enough of back entrances, have you?”
“Illya Nickovetch, shut your mouth.” Napoleon hissed, trying not to laugh.
The girls had been talking quietly and missed the exchange.
“Alright, Mr. Solo. We’ll try it your way. And this is Natalia, your other witness today. Natalia Cooper, Mr. Solo and Mr. Kur… Kuryakin.” Miss Stevens said carefully.
Illya smiled softly at her and she blushed. “You must call us Illya and Napoleon, if we are to be friends for this short while, don’t you think?” Illya executed his patented bow over Miss Cooper’s hand and smiled when she also flustered.
“Forty years together and I never would have thought I would lose you to a pair of girls young enough to be our great granddaughters.” Napoleon’s tone was teasing and low, causing Illya to give him a roll of his eyes.
“You are only jealous because I got to them first.”
“Well, it is a rarity.”
“Just keeping you on your toes, Napoleon.”
“You’ve really waited… um, I’m sorry.”
“No, go ahead Miss Stevens, please.” Napoleon turned his still charming smile on the young woman.
“It’s none of my business, sir, but you have really waited forty years to get married?” She sounded wistful. “And you can call me Darlene, if you like.”
“Well, Darlene,” the way Napoleon said her name sounded more like darling, “we have been partners for many years and while I wouldn’t say we have been pining to have a piece of paper give us permission to live our lives as we saw fit, I also didn’t think I would live to see the day that we could do such a thing as marry. It just seemed like we should take the advantage when it was presented.”
“Napoleon, are you carrying, by any chance?”
“Of course not, we’re going in a courthouse.”
“Too bad. A tranq gun would be nice about now.”
The shouting of the old man had gotten louder now, and his diatribe was starting to gather passersby to gawk.
“A tranquilizer dart would be too good for that lot, Illya.”
“Yes, but look at the guy to the side there, back of the crowd, in the black parka. His hand is in his coat. Suspicious, don’t you think?”
Napoleon looked, and yes, it didn’t look good. “Natalia, Darlene, I think you two should go around back as you first planned. And find building security.”
“No sir, not us. We come prepared,” Natalia held up a canister that had been hidden in her palm.
“They never do more than throw things, we can duck pretty fast.” Darlene added, showing her own canister.
“Illya, take the girls and go up the steps, I’ll circle around and see what I can discover.”
“Napoleon, what do you think you‘re doing, you aren‘t twenty any…”
Napoleon interrupted his partner, “Exactly, when I stumble against him, he won’t suspect a thing.”
“If you fall and break a hip I’ll shoot you myself.”
“Not a horse, Illya. Now, give me about thirty seconds lead time, then go.” Napoleon slipped into the growing crowd.
Illya let out an exasperated gust of breath and then checked his watch. “I want you both to keep your eyes forward, don’t give away Napoleon’s location by looking for him, ok? Let me take care of keeping an eye out for Mr. Headstrong.” Illya was leading them around the crowd now, keeping his body between the girls and the milling protesters and spectators.
A couple came out of the doors of the courthouse just as the three reached the first step, protesters surged, bystanders got caught up in the movement, willing or not, and Illya could just see Napoleon as he reached the target.
There was a roar of engines from behind them that Illya recognized as motorcycles, the crowd continued toward the couple coming down the steps and Illya picked up the pace, leading the girls at an angle away from the crowd toward a row of columns fronting the courthouse.
From the top of the steps Illya watched the riders dismount and form a wall between the crowd and the couple on the steps. A limousine decorated with “Just Married” signs waited at the curb and one of the riders opened the back door. The couple, men in their thirties, Illya estimated, broke out in smiles and started down the steps faster. Illya spotted Napoleon just as the young man in the dark jacket took a fall in the crowd. Illya could see something liquid and viscous spreading out from under the man’s coat and Napoleon making his way up the steps and around the wall of bikers. Napoleon paused a moment and spoke with the last man in line who laughed and leaned to the next man in line, saying something that made him laugh and something was passed along the wall that made them all grin. Napoleon then continued, a smile on his lips, toward Illya and their new friends.
Illya relaxed when Napoleon finally reached them and the four of them continued into the lobby.
“What did you say to the human shield that made them so happy?”
“I merely reported that the rotten eggs had met with an untimely smashing on the pavement under a protester. He never saw me coming, or going for that matter.” Napoleon grinned as if he had just taken out a nest of THRUSH single-handed. “Makes me feel young again, tovarisch.”
The girls had been talking quietly between them, then Darlene looked at her watch and reached out to touch Napoleon’s sleeve. “The appointment is in ten minutes, we should hurry.”
They made it to the elevator when a man in leather approached. “Excuse me, sir, are you the man that Dean tells me about?”
“Who’s Dean and what did he say?”
Illya made a move as if to block the other man from approaching Napoleon, but his partner’s hand on his elbow stopped him, though the cold look Illya gave the other was enough to stop him several feet away. Napoleon’s look reminded Illya that he was no longer Chief of Security and Illya’s said that titles didn’t matter, but allowed the other man to approach again.
“That was my little brother gettin’ married today and we heard about what can happen, so we traveled up here to make sure he didn’t run into some trouble,” the man’s soft drawl was polite and careful. “Dean was takin’ point and he passed it down that a gentleman in a suit had tripped some protester who was gonna throw somethin’ and I just wanted to say thank you. And, ah, well, I see you have some friends there, are your young ladies needin’ an escort out later or anything, we like to pay our debts, see.” The younger man was obviously trying hard to say the right thing, even as unsure of what it may be as he was. Behind him the one who must be Dean hung back, watching.
Napoleon smiled, the charming one he used when he used to talk to witnesses or those under their protection back in their agent days, the smile that put others at ease, that assured them all was well, even if it wasn’t. For a moment he was again the man in charge of a large organization for right and good, Illya could see him as he was then, in command and still careful with outsiders.
Napoleon nodded in Dean’s direction and the other man joined them. “As I was telling your point man here, I might have stumbled a little when I realized that one of the protestors had something nasty in his hand, I didn’t point this out as a debt, by any means, gentlemen. I was simply doing what I believe any decent person might do if they had a chance, defend the innocent. And I hoped that sharing the amusement might also be welcome. I wish your brother and his partner as many years of joy as they can get, real companionship is rare and we often don’t value it until it’s too late.” Napoleon smiled again, a genuine one of joy as he looked at Illya and then back to the men in front of him. “Live and let love, gentlemen, and there will be no debt. Now, if you will excuse me, I am a groom today and my partner is very capable of killing me without leaving any evidence if I am late to my wedding. And if I make the other groom grumpy I am afraid he won’t let me have any of the wedding cake, he is also capable of eating the whole thing by himself.”
“I’d let you have the last forkful.” Illya said with a smile. “The girls are holding the elevator, Napoleon, we should go.”
The two men in leather looked surprised and then smiled as Illya folded Napoleon’s hand in his and led him to the open doors of the elevator. They were still looking bemused as the doors shut on the foursome.
“Does it feel any different?”
Illya looked up from the last of the dinner on his plate to find Napoleon twisting the platinum band on his finger. He glanced down at his own hand where the matching band had rested for decades. He stood and went around the small table in their suite and leaned over his still seated partner, running his hands down Napoleon’s arms to take his hands, linking their fingers together. He could feel the tension in his partner’s shoulders and placed the barest kiss under his ear. “Do you think it should?”
“I wish…” Napoleon fell silent.
“What do you wish, my friend?”
“We have outlived half of our friends and most of our enemies. And I wish that the friends, at least, could have been with us today.” He was quiet again for a moment before turning to look at Illya. “I’m sorry for the sentimentality.”
“Napoleon, you would hardly be you without it. In any case, it was a good day.” Illya leaned in and kissed him again, on the lips this time, and was pleased when the tension transmuted into something else entirely, his lover opening to him.
Much later, hands entwined again, Napoleon lifted Illya’s hand to his mouth and kissed the palm just under the platinum banded finger. “I was so nervous that day, I thought I would pass out or throw up or do some other completely awful thing before you finally showed up.”
“You, Napoleon? I don’t believe it for a second.”
“Truth, tovarisch, nothing but.”
Napoleon checked the table again. The crystal was spotless, the candles lit, dinner was keeping warm in the oven. He checked his watch and then the mantel clock. He couldn’t remember ever being so nervous, this was uncomfortably new to him, this feeling of unease. He paced to the window again and then back to the set table, adjusting the perfectly aligned silver one more time. He was reaching for the communicator in his pocket when the coded knock came on the door and he heard the scrape of a key. He expected to feel relief, instead he felt flushed and a trickle of sweat beaded and ran down his spine. His hands gripped the back of the dining table chair before him and he waited.
He could hear the coat closet door open and the rustle of cloth as Illya removed his coat. The door closed and footsteps approached. He looked up and Illya was framed in the spill of light from the kitchen, silhouetted there for a moment like a snapshot, face in shadow and bright hair haloed in the backlight. Then he continued forward and the illusion was broken and he was Illya, partner and friend, not the ethereal and untouchable vision Napoleon imagined.
“Napoleon, are you alright?”
“Of course.” Napoleon wondered if his voice sounded as weak as his knees felt. “Dinner is ready.”
Illya took in the silver and crystal, the candles, lifted a brow and moved toward Napoleon again. “What’s the occasion?” He stopped in front of his friend, expectant.
“We missed your birthday last week. You were on that affair in Reykjavik. I was in London and thought I would meet up with you and then ended up having to go to Paris instead. I thought we might have a late celebration.”
Illya seemed to accept this. Napoleon insisted his partner sit and he served dinner, normal activities that soothed his nerves and they settled into easy conversation, finally.
Illya wanted to help with the dishes, so together they cleared the table and the sheer normality of the routine, one they had practiced for years, finally erased the remaining tension Napoleon had felt all day.
Settled on the couch, after dinner drinks in hand, Illya turned to Napoleon, “Would you like to tell me now what it is that’s been weighing so heavy on your mind tonight, my friend?”
Napoleon gave Illya a look, “Can I hide nothing from you, Illya?”
“Very little,” Illya smiled and took a drink of his vodka, then leaned forward and sat his glass on the coffee table. He turned to give his full attention to Napoleon.
Napoleon leaned up a little, snaking his hand into a pants pocket and came out with a small box, he turned to face Illya on the couch and held out the box. “Happy Birthday, partner mine.”
Illya hesitated, then reached out and took the box, holding it in his hands. He looked up at Napoleon, whose eyes were glued to the box in his partner’s hands as if it were unstable dynamite. Illya looked at the box again, slowly opened it. On a bed of black satin was a bright unbroken circle of metal.
“Platinum.” Napoleon said quietly, “It’s more durable than gold.”
Illya looked up again to see Napoleon looking at him now, not the box or ring. He let his eyes ask the question.
“It’s not wise, I know, to wear it, but I wanted you to have it because I mean everything that it represents, I …” Napoleon stopped, at a loss to continue, looking helplessly at his partner, eyes asking him to understand.
“Sentimental blockhead.” Illya reached out and pulled Napoleon to him, kissing him fiercely.
Two months later for Napoleon’s birthday, Illya presented him with a matching box, a matching ring of platinum. It would be years yet before they wore them daily. Until then, they wore them on special days, days they spent alone together.
Illya held out the fork with a bite of cake on it, Napoleon smiled and took the proffered bite, lips and tongue swiping the fork clean and he smiled again as he swallowed and Illya’s eyes darkened.
“You are always welcome.”
Their words took on more meaning as Illya sat aside the empty plate and fork and Napoleon met him halfway, the kiss made sweeter by the shared cake and feelings. Though their movements were more often slow and languorous than they were frenzied as they had once been their pleasure in each other and their need to connect was still immediate. And the satisfaction was still a glow they basked in throughout.
Napoleon ran his fingers through his lover’s sweat damp hair, feeling the slow glide of Illya’s hands over his back, both of them breathing deeply and feeling their hearts slow back down to a more normal pace.
“You’re stuck with me now, moyO sErtse.”
“The more things change, my friend, the less they really do.”
Napoleon heard the smile in his partner’s voice, and was content.