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From Geneva With Love

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Illya had very reluctantly agreed to ‘take a break’ with Napoleon after a year spent working for U.N.C.L.E., and was now regretting it. Granted, given how secretive Napoleon had been about it all, Illya had become increasingly convinced as they stole away from New York that their ‘little holiday’ was going to perhaps involve felonies, deviant sexual behaviour and perhaps an international incident or two.

As such when Napoleon drove them up the little winding driveway through rolling lush lawns to the modest white house overlooking Lake Geneva, Illya actually felt disappointed. It was a two-storey house, with large French-style windows and a gently sloping blue slate roof, and an attached low square building which seemed to be the garage. Absolutely conventional. They had left the bustle of the city itself far behind, having dodged cars, trams and the odd horse-drawn cart to get here. Illya had been silent most of the drive, curious at first, then confused, and now he was finally exasperated.

“So. Why Geneva?” Illya asked flatly, as Napoleon rolled them to a stop outside the garage.

Napoleon flashed him a serenely unconcerned smile. “Why not? After all, Lord Byron himself said, ‘Happy is he who upon these shores may rest’-“

Rest? This is your idea of a holiday?”

Napoleon raised an eyebrow, even as he dropped a pair of keys into Illya’s lap. “It’s a holiday. Resting is traditional. Unlock the garage, will you?”

Illya clenched his hand over the keys, briefly tempted to throw them back in Napoleon’s smug face and walk back to the city, but eventually he exhaled in a rush and let himself out of the car. The garage was impeccable, and the silver Aston Martin fit neatly between the door and a small bench of tools that looked unused. Returning the keys, Illya found that he was curious again, as he took their bags from the back of the car. Napoleon pulled down the garage door, locking it, then he selected another key from the ring in his pockets and unlocked the inner door.

The ground floor of the house seemed spacious, if only because the entire floor seemed to be one large chamber, but for the garage and a room in a corner that was possibly the bathroom. The furniture was minimal and unobtrusive and neat, all either glass or steel or white leather, the rich dark wooden floor continuing in an unbroken tiling pattern out towards the wide deck beyond, where two wicker chairs faced the lake. The deck was closed away from the main house by particularly large French windows, running almost from the floor to the high ceiling but for a hand’s breadth of brick on each end. A small kitchen was tucked in a corner instead of being walled off into a separate room, and at the centre of the house a stairway wound upwards in a black corkscrew of steel towards the second floor.

It was a strange house, strange for how purposefully bare it was. The walls were unadorned, blank swathes of white plaster, and as Illya ran a hand lightly over the cold steel of the stair rail and glanced up, he noted that what he could see of the second floor was just as purposefully bare.

Napoleon was rummaging in a cabinet at the kitchen. “Go ahead,” he told Illya, sounding amused. “Bet you’re dying to explore.”

Illya sniffed, refusing to concede the point, but he headed upstairs with their bags. The second floor, like the ground floor, was a single floor, the bathroom cased off by glass walls, and two sets of steel-framed glass doors opened out to the balcony. The bed was modest, unencumbered by a headboard or posts, pressed into a corner. There was a desk that sat nearly at the centre of the floor, more of a long narrow bench that was at parts pitted and scratched, chairs tucked underneath, bared light globes dangling from wires that stretched above to the ceiling, almost invisible. Illya dropped the bags on the desk and ran his fingers thoughtfully over the gouges, the few acid stains. He knew what a workbench like this was for.

Treading carefully, Illya found the false floor in minutes, and after some probing, found the cunningly hidden catch that allowed him to tug a section of the floorboards free. He glanced within it, sniffed again, then set the section back down and checked the modest wardrobe by the wall closest to the bathroom. It too, had a false floor. He looked outside, at the balcony, then he headed back down the corkscrew stairs, and found Napoleon outside on the deck, already lounging, catlike, in a wicker chair, two glasses of scotch on a small stone table, his jacket slung carelessly over the back of his chair.

Illya sat down on the other wicker chair, feet on the floor, elbows balanced on his knees. “This is your house.” This was a house built for a man who did not like to be caged.

“No, I just so happened to park our car in the garage of a house that I so happened to have the keys to, and we are now compounding trespass with petty thievery.” Napoleon said dryly, and picked up a glass, toasting Illya playfully.

Illya picked up his own glass. “You have cleaners come by?”

“Couple of times a month.”

“They have not looked under floor upstairs?”

“If they’ve found that, they’ve not said a word. We’re in Switzerland, Peril. Famous for its clocks, its banks, its discretion.”

Illya nodded slowly. He had found neatly arranged parts that would’ve served to make up a very particular type of workbench if screwed together. “I did not know that you cast your own bullets.”

“I find the procedure restful now and then.”

There was something of the craftsman to Napoleon, at least where certain parts of their shared profession was concerned. Illya could appreciate that much. So he drank his scotch, and felt some of his irritation fade, watching the idyllic lake beyond the rolling grass, past the deck. The air was crisp and chilly, the first breath of autumn, the trees beyond beginning to shake their verdant crowns for gowns of fire and gold.

“So why are we here?” Illya asked, when they had finished the scotch.

Napoleon had been starting to curl up on his chair, a sign that Illya now recognised instantly. It meant that Napoleon was about to doze off. “I told you before,” Napoleon said, without looking up. “We’re here on a holiday. We deserve it. We’ve spent the year, hm, destabilising two nuclear plots, a chemical weapons plot, undermining dictatorships and international crime rings and even saving a kitten. A break seemed in order.”

“We had downtime,” Illya said, then added. “Also, Gaby was the one who saved kitten.”

“Oh yes, ‘downtime’,” Napoleon noted dryly. “Which you spend in the gym, for the most part.”

“Helps to stay fit.”

I stay fit. You, I don’t know what you’re preparing for, but it scares me.”

“Everything.”

This was an old argument between them, however, especially in the last two months, when they had finally worn a semi-comfortable groove in the pattern that they had drawn between them. They had sex in discreet hotels in New York and in safehouses on missions, whenever Gaby wasn’t around, in ugly motels en route to objectives and once in the cramped back seat of a Citroën, Napoleon grumbling all the while about poky little French cars. Once they fucked on the roof of an objective, all post mission adrenaline and Napoleon writhing under his arms, suit ruined from sand and grit and laughing against his mouth.

It was all, however, impersonal, or so Illya had thought. Napoleon was a difficult partner to work with sometimes, and Illya himself was probably worse. They were not used to company, and working as a team still chafed even after a year. Sex took the stress off a pressure valve. It rebalanced the scale, eased off conflict. During downtime, for the most part, Illya kept to himself. He exercised or visited jazz clubs, read or played blitz chess in the parks, and tried to think of nothing of consequence.

And now this. Illya did not even know where Napoleon truly lived in New York: the apartments he had been to had felt more like safehouses. This house felt like a sudden opening into Napoleon’s life, one that had yawned wide right under Illya’s feet. He did not quite know what to say.

“Relax.” Napoleon had noticed Illya’s uncertainty. “We’re on a break.”

“So you tell me.”

“Well, how do I convince you? More scotch?”

Illya eyed Napoleon skeptically. “Are we here to rob bank?”

“…No?” Napoleon guffawed. “Honestly, Peril.”

“… Musée d’Art et d’Histoire?”

“No. Though. They do have a Rembrandt that I like,” Napoleon said, a little wistfully.

“Oh?”

“Despite what you seem to think,” Napoleon said dryly, “I don’t intend to spend our holiday breaking the law. I’m a retired thief, remember? I’m respectable now.”

Illya sniffed. “So you want to spend one week… sitting here and drinking scotch?” He tested the idea in his mind, expecting his exasperation to return, but felt only a vaguely disappointed confusion.

“Geneva’s a nice city. Art, markets, wine-“

“You want to be tourist?”

“Don’t say that like it’s some sort of awful disease.”

Unsettled, Illya set his glass back on the table and folded himself up on the chair. Like most furniture, it was too small for him, his knees sticking out awkwardly and his elbows pressing uncomfortably against the arched spine of the back of the chair. Geneva looked and felt like a clean little clockwork city, and the view of the lake was unabashedly idyllic. There was an unselfconsciously pastoral about it all, lacking maybe only some sheep and a shepherdess in petticoats, and it was strangely disorienting. Illya was at home in brash and crowded New York, in sober, complicated Moscow, in vibrant Istanbul and in humid Sumatran forests, in dour London and in the middle of the Gobi desert, anywhere in the world. Here, he felt out of place.

“Somehow I did not think that you would choose a place in Geneva.” Illya said, trying to hide his unease.

“Why not?”

“I thought it would be Paris. Or London.”

“It’s quiet here. I like it.”

Illya stared at Napoleon in surprise, then glanced back over his shoulder to look at the house again. “This is what you like to do during ‘break’?”

“What did you think I liked to do?”

“Commit felony,” Illya said, though he smiled sharply as he said it.

“I do think that you’re behind Gaby’s consistently terrible opinion of me.” Napoleon said reproachfully, though then he started to chuckle. “Our lives have so little peace in them, Peril. This is the only true luxury for people like us.”

“Doing nothing?” Illya asked skeptically.

“Doing nothing,” Napoleon yawned. “No missions. No running to the far ends of the world. No shooting people or getting shot at by people. No desperate last stands, no fate-of-the-world stakes.”

“I did not expect this,” Illya admitted.

“That was obvious.”

“Also. Your house. I thought…” Illya trailed off for a moment. “No. No matter.”

“No, tell me.”

“It was a small thing.”

“Illya,” Napoleon actually sat up, “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to harass you endlessly until you do.”

“House of art thief,” Illya muttered. “Empty walls. But then I thought. CIA probably… confiscated it?”

“Oh, that.” Napoleon smiled wryly, then he got to his feet. “C’mon. Let me show you something.”

Napoleon led Illya back to the corkscrew stairs. He knelt on the floor, fingers pressing lightly to certain parts of the wooden floor, which indented inwards by a hair’s breadth. “Got the idea from a Chinese puzzle box,” Napoleon told Illya. “Devilishly difficult thing. It was a present. Took me half a week to crack.” He slid another hidden latch to a side, then another, and pressed another hidden pressure pad. There was a hollow click, then Napoleon backed away a step and pressed down with both hands, and a circular section of the floor slid down and away to the side. The corkscrew stair led downwards into a dark hollow that smelled of stale air.

Napoleon headed down first, briskly, and turned the lights on when Illya followed him down. The basement of the house was huge, at least twice the floor space of the house itself, a clean gray rectangular chamber that stretched away from the lake, lit by bars of electric lights that ran across the ceiling and kept at an artificially constant temperature by a hidden thermostat. There was enough space to walk to the far left and right of the room, but most of the chamber was taken up by four sets of black rails, two on the ceiling, two on the floor, which held between them racks upon racks of white wire grilles, upon which hung frames upon frames of paintings.

Some were large: the one closest to them would be longer than Illya was tall, if turned on its side, a darkly furious painting of an ewe crouched over a bloodied lamb on the snow, the ewe’s eyes rolling back in fear, standing in an ring of black crows. Some were small - the gilt-framed piece next to that was a pencil sketch of some sort, thickly articulate on yellowing paper. Illya glanced at Napoleon, who grinned at him and waved him playfully on, and Illya headed down the narrow corridor to his right, between the racks and the white stone wall, occasionally carefully pushing racks along on their tracks. One painting had an entire rack to itself, even though it was small and no wider than Illya’s shoulders, all bright paint daubs, making up a blurry-looking image of a lily pond.

The back of the chamber was walled off by glass, and held shelves of small sculptures. There was a familiar one of a man in thought, and several beautiful animal sculptures, but pride of place was held by a Fabergé egg, in emerald enamel trellised intricately with rose gold and silver and rubies, exquisite and opulent and timeless.

Eventually, Illya made his way back to Napoleon, who was standing by the second rack, which held a scrolled silk painting, strung from the top of the rack to the bottom, painted in the Chinese style, with a red stamp at the top left. It was of a white hawk perched on a pine tree over a waterfall, the landscape fading to mist. There was a poised stillness to the hunting bird, a fierce, proud watchfulness, untouchable and aloof. Like every piece of purloined art in the chamber, it was exquisite.

“What do you think?” Napoleon asked, grinning, though there was an odd earnestness to the question. Napoleon, Illya realized with a start, actually did care what Illya thought of his illegal treasure trove.

“You have an Ilya Repin that you should not have,” Illya said, amused. “I think it is my favourite.”

“The stone collector’s horse…?” Napoleon actually frowned slightly. “It’s your favourite… because Repin is Russian or because of his first name? I have an Aivazovskiy-“

“Something else that you should not have.” Illya reached for Napoleon, who allowed himself to be pulled close, against the wall, beside all that Napoleon likely loved most in the world. “What kind of art thief steals things to keep?”

“After a while money’s just something you use to keep score. Sow it around and it’ll make more money by itself without me actually having to pay very much attention to it or break any laws. There’s an actual practical reason why this house is in Switzerland.”

“I heard you were war profiteer.”

“In a sense. And at first,” Napoleon conceded. “But there’s better money to be had breaking into the vaults under galleries. Once you can get in, it’s just a matter of picking up what you like and heading out, sometimes. I picked up that Aivazovskiy by pretending to be a workman.” Napoleon grinned to himself. “It was harder getting out from behind the Iron Curtain than in, with that piece. Almost didn’t make it.”

“You are a very selfish man,” Illya said dryly, and Napoleon chuckled, curling an arm around Illya’s waist.

“I know. Some things in life, I just want to keep for myself.” Napoleon leaned up, to brush a playful kiss against the edge of Illya’s mouth.

This was why Napoleon had taken Illya to Geneva, had shown him this house, with its open spaces, with its secrets. This was not just Napoleon letting down his guard. This was Napoleon made vulnerable. Uncertain all over again, Illya stayed still and quiet. He did not know what to do with his hands, or even what to say. For a moment he felt like the too-tall gangly boy he had once been, years ago when his parents had both still been alive, shy around strangers and the unknown, before brutality had ground away shame and sentiment alike and left only rage in its wake. It was disorienting.

“Too soon?” Napoleon asked softly, wryly. He tried to pull back, but Illya tightened his grip reflexively, holding Napoleon against him.

“I don’t know,” Illya admitted.

“Well,” Napoleon let out a startled laugh. “That’s… better than what I feared but worse than what I’d hoped for.”

“Thinking about it,” Illya said, trying for gentleness but sounding gruff even to his own ears. Napoleon’s smile faded, growing sober, though he didn’t try to pull back this time.

“So,” Napoleon ventured, as the silence stretched. “I’m starting to get nervous.”

This would have been impossible had they been what they were a year and a few months ago, even wrapped together like this, so close. But now Illya and Napoleon seemed to stand outside the world, cocooned away from petty wars and politics. It had been seemed to be an easy transition for Napoleon; Illya himself had struggled. Now this, just as he was starting to find his footing. Napoleon had timed this carefully after all. Weeks before, Illya would have agreed curtly, yes, too soon. Weeks or months into the future, surer of himself as an U.N.C.L.E. operative, Illya would likely have shrugged and said something about distractions.

“Is it Gaby?” Napoleon probed, when Illya still said nothing. “I just thought. Well. The two of you seem to be just friends nowadays.”

Illya nodded slowly. Gaby was used to a different sort of man, one with more bark, less bite; Illya, to a different sort of woman, all bite, no bark. Their first month together had been interesting, but then the stress fractures had set in, and they parted friends and colleagues, relieved. Then there had been Napoleon, and just Napoleon.

Carefully, Illya bent, to kiss Napoleon on the mouth. Napoleon’s lips parted, but Illya ignored the invitation, closing his eyes. Napoleon tasted of scotch and a flattering sort of nervous tension, his hands going up to Illya’s shoulders, squeezing lightly. They kissed until Napoleon’s breathing grew shallower, until his hands had edged up to Illya’s cheeks, hot and roughened by gun work. There was no revelation, no sudden pivot. Napoleon had always fit easily against Illya like this, like two halves of a sundered whole.

“So,” Napoleon said, and the playfulness was back.

“It is too soon,” Illya noted idly, and when Napoleon started to tense up, he added, “But we have a week in Geneva and I may change my mind.”

“I fall for this sort of promise from you every damned time,” Napoleon said mournfully, though he kissed Illya on the jaw, then back up to his mouth, and this time Illya licked into Napoleon’s mouth, used his teeth on Napoleon’s lip, mauling him.

They stumbled blindly up the corkscrew steps but gave up trying to reach the bedroom, tumbling out onto the ground floor instead, the wooden floor far too hard on Illya’s knees and probably worse on Napoleon’s back. Somewhere along the line, urgency had fed clumsiness into their fingers, Illya fumbling Napoleon’s belt buckle, Napoleon grumbling as he tried to get off their shoes, one clanking back down the stairs, startling Napoleon into laughing.

Illya bit him on the neck in mock reproach then reared back and managed to get their jackets off, then their belts, but then Napoleon hooked his fingers into the straps of Illya’s shoulder holster, grinning, and dragged Illya back down. This time, Illya kissed Napoleon until he was drunk from it, until Napoleon was all of the world to his senses; Illya would drown from it if he could. This was Illya’s real answer to Napoleon’s question and perhaps Napoleon understood: his elegant fingers clutched at Illya’s nape, then twitched up into his hair, and hips hitched up against Illya’s belly, rubbing the hot brand of Napoleon’s arousal up against his abdomen.

Napoleon was fumbling their trousers open, navigating buttons and boxers, squirming against Illya as Illya spit on his hand, then Napoleon arched and let out a whine as Illya clenched his long fingers around their cocks and stroked, deliberately slow, just enough pressure to winch them both between pleasure and pain. Illya buried his mouth against Napoleon’s neck, against the soft skin between his jaw and the line of his throat, licked up the first salty beadings of sweat as he thrust against Napoleon’s cock, against his own fingers, too dry. A small pleading groan was torn from Napoleon, his hips twitching up, heels scraping futilely for purchase on the polished wood, then he went still, giving in, and Illya kissed him on the neck. Good.

They ground against each other, Illya rolling his hips, his hands sometimes squeezing tighter, sparking pinpricks of pain that shocked gasps from Napoleon, little animalistic sounds that Illya swallowed with roughening kisses. Napoleon was trying to buck against him, hard as it was for him to get leverage, and Illya let him try, keeping it slow. He was waiting, pleasure banked, held back with the luxury of time. This was no clandestine hurried fuck, no longer sex for convenient utility.

Napoleon’s fingers scraped down Illya’s back, clawing at his shirt, over sweat-soaked folds, and Illya chuckled and pinched at a nipple with a free hand, waiting for the keening yowl before swallowing it with another demanding kiss. To Illya’s dull surprise this was enough for Napoleon to come, slippery and hot and messy, choking out breathless wounded gasps against Illya’s lips, his handsome face slack with ecstasy. Illya thrust into the mess, slick now, stroking himself against Napoleon’s over-sensitised spent flesh, hungry.

Illya felt like he was learning Napoleon all over again, another Napoleon, one far more open and at his mercy. He had not known that he could want someone like this, with no lies between them, only a simple paean for the future, its lyric a ruthless addiction to pleasure and promise. To Napoleon. Illya spent himself in a dazed and silent rush, trembling; it was Napoleon who shuddered and moaned and pulled at his shoulders, Napoleon who pressed grateful gentle kisses against his mouth, his neck.

Eventually Illya rolled off Napoleon, onto his flank, Napoleon’s arm tucked under Illya’s throat, and Napoleon grinned at him, smug again, both of them still trying to catch their breaths.

“Geneva, maybe not so bad,” Illya conceded.

“I thought you might see things my way.”