“They say there’s a story behind the name of this bar,” Damien said as they walked shoulder to shoulder through the crowd at The Cannibal. Animal heads and skins decorated the walls, along with a few faux-African masks, bright, crude paintings, and spears. The contrast between that decor and the tall Christmas tree — artificial, its silvery tinsel boughs laden with garish red bulbs — was alarming.
“But if they tell you, they’ll have to eat you.”
Illya Kuryakin glanced at him, eye to eye, and said nothing. Damien shrugged, no expression on his cunning, handsome face.
Illya shook his head and let the man he knew only as Damien lead the way to a booth at the back. He knew only the name, that he was, or sounded, English. That he was a courier, a liaison between various governmental and nongovernmental agencies. That Waverly trusted him and his information — in this instance data on a planned coup in a small Eastern European nation.
Damien slid into the booth and watched Illya do the same on the other side. The bar was smoky and dim, but the Russian felt it as Damien’s eyes — blue as Illya’s but easily 20 degrees colder in their resting state — examined him.
“How is Napoleon?” Damien asked in his nasal, sarcastic voice.
Illya kept the small table centered between them, quickly checking that his gun was secure in its belt holster, still covered by his black sweater. He knew one thing more about Damien, and he didn’t like it. That it was his own weakness, and not Damien’s fault, didn’t make it any easier for him to like it.
“Napoleon is fine,” he said, and Damien smiled the smile that reminded him why he didn’t like it. He liked still less the idea that he wasn’t the only one it had occurred to.
Even as shivers ghosted up his back, he dismissed that idea. Ridiculous. Ridiculous to imagine such a thought ever entering his partner’s head. Ever.
“I’m sorry he wasn’t able to join us,” Damien said, leaning back against the red leather of the seat. He’d left his coat at the door, as had Illya, and looked perfectly comfortable in a white sweater and blue jeans.
The deep burgundy leather set off the gleaming chestnut-gold of his hair, worn even longer than Illya’s. The Russian didn’t doubt for a moment Damien had planned the display; it was his right to choose their meeting places. They’d met all over the world, he and either Illya or Napoleon (no one else; Waverly himself saw to that, for some reason), half a dozen times, each contact flawless, without a problem. Except the problem Illya had with the man himself.
Napoleon would never have such a problem, Illya thought, both relieved and sorry about that fact.
“This isn’t a social occasion,” he replied, hearing how harsh his own voice sounded in comparison to Damien’s. He knew why he was annoyed, but the extent startled him.
“No, but even in ... unsocial occasions, Napoleon is social.”
Again the smile. Every time Illya tried to read past that smile, past the amusement and the silent, supreme self-confidence, he floundered. He wasn’t used to that, and it angered him. That, he knew, was the response Damien expected, wanted. So he swallowed it. Two could play at the game of ... of what? What were they playing at, he and this mysterious courier?
“More social than his partner,” Damien added.
Illya smiled faintly. “That is universally true.”
“He’s no less guarded than you,” Damien said, leaning forward. Illya started — on the inside only — but Damien merely signaled for the passing waitress to stop. “He just doesn’t show it. Single malt scotch for me, neat, and Stolichnaya, well chilled, for my friend. My treat.”
“Thank you,” Illya said.
The waitress left and Damien strafed him with that intense and icy gaze. “You aren’t going to comment on the fact that I remember what you drink? Out of the hundreds of agents I’ve met?”
Illya said flatly, “This isn’t a date. You can’t impress me, and it wouldn’t do you any good you if you could.”
Damien chuckled. “If I can’t impress you, I’ll settle for troubling you.”
Again Illya schooled his face to blankness. With most men it would be easy, but he’d seen Damien’s quick perception, and he had no intention of revealing anything.
“If your goal is to cause trouble, that’s easily done,” he said. “All things tend toward chaos.”
Damien leaned back again, head slightly tilted, regarding Illya, amusement in his eyes. “A man who loves blowing things up clearly cannot be philosophically opposed to chaos.”
Illya was forced to smile, to acknowledge the truth of the remark. “Judiciously applied, in pursuit of order.” He wondered how much this courier knew about him. He wondered more what Damien suspected. “Is chaos your goal?”
“I have several goals,” Damien said seriously. “Professional and personal.”
Damien’s face lit, the look of a man who knows he’s being drawn out, and welcomes it. Illya felt himself caught again.
“A certain amount of ... personal chaos is necessary to feel alive.” His tone turned abruptly serious, and that chill returned to slither along Illya’s spine. “Don’t pretend to mock the sentiment, Illya Nickovetch. I won’t accept it, not from a man in your business.”
Illya shook his head. “I was only going to say, are we not in the same business?”
“That is something you have no need to know.”
The waitress returned with their drinks. Illya, to show himself unaffected, lifted his glass to Damien’s. The courier didn’t echo the gesture, instead leaning forward again, elbows on the table, hands wrapped loosely around the glass. He had the same height and general build as Illya, though less muscle. The Russian saw that his hands were slender. Musician’s hands, he thought automatically, and quickly took a sip of the chilled vodka.
“What you do need to know,” Damien said, “is that I was followed.”
Illya didn’t move, but let his eyes sweep the crowd. “Is he here?”
“Tall. Heavy.” Each trait was quiet, precisely spaced. “Dirt-brown hair. Short. Grey at the temples. Heavy black overcoat. Walks with a slight hitch, not unlike yours, but to the left.”
Illya paused in scanning the room to give the courier a shot of Russian ice that, not surprisingly, had no effect.
“From The Plaza here.” Damien gazed into his drink. “Perhaps it was a coincidence.”
“Excuse me,” Illya said, sliding out of the booth to disappear into the crowd. Two minutes, one slight bump and a murmured apology later, he returned. As he sat down he slid a little farther around so he could both watch the patrons and talk to the courier without speaking loudly.
“Did you introduce yourself?” Damien asked.
“Let us say I hope to know him better in a moment.” Below the level of the table, Illya opened the wallet he’d appropriated. Damien, watching, smiled, slid a little closer. Close enough to feel, though not touching.
“Well done,” he observed warmly.
Illya said, “Does this bar cater to homosexuals?”
The cold eyes flickered up to his. “Not deliberately, so far as I know.”
“Then you are going to draw attention neither of us needs if you move any closer to me,” Illya said.
Utterly unfazed, Damien looked him over, a quick searching glance followed by a thoughtful head tilt.
“Perhaps one of us should cut his hair.”
Illya chuckled silently, opening the wallet.
“My guess was GRU,” Damien said, peering over Illya’s arm with no apparent awareness of what it was doing to the Russian’s nerve endings. “MI5 dress better, the Surete have no business with me this year...and the Soviet would benefit from a shift in Marakhstan’s current democratic rule.”
Illya flipped quickly through credit and business cards and photos, maybe more quickly than was prudent, but it was more prudent to not reveal that his hands weren’t steady. Just in case they weren’t.
“Garrett, Peter. Michigan address. Wife and two small, one of each ... stop.” Damien reached out, put a finger between two photos, flipped back. “What’s this?”
Illya saw it too. A photo wedged between the others. He worked it out of its slot and they both chuckled to see a woman, easily 10 years younger than his wife, with masses of flaming red hair and very little else to cover her voluptuous body. Illya turned it over. The words, in smeared blue ink, were barely legible.
“‘I love you furry’?” Illya read aloud, incredulous.
“‘Forever,’ I think,” Damien said. “Forever if only part-time. Still, it’s sweet of him to carry her picture about.”
“Sweet and dangerous if his wife finds out.” Illya started flipping again.
“Sweetness without danger is cloying,” Damien said. Illya, counting the bills in the billfold, shrugged.
“I can’t remember. One hundred and eighteen dollars and a receipt for a black negligee, size 12, from a shop called Naughty Niceties.” He slid the wad of paper back in.
“For the wife, one must suppose, as he’s kept the receipt. Few men enjoy that much danger.”
Illya closed the wallet and scooted farther from Damien. “Why would he be following you? He appears to be a businessman on a junket.”
“Who knows? Are you certain you lifted the correct wallet?”
Illya favored him with a sardonic glance. Damien smiled again.
“My apologies. As the little boy said, everyone is so terribly sensitive about the things they know best.”
“I take it you can lose him if he follows you from here,” Illya said. “Or deal with him if he accosts you.”
“I expect so,” Damien replied. “Suppose he accosts you?”
“I’ll appeal to his libido.”
Damien eyed him curiously, half-smiling. “I wonder if that would work.”
“The preservation of it, I mean,” Illya said, sipping his vodka, and Damien laughed.
“I see.” He drained the rest of his scotch in one toss, set the glass down. “May I ask you a question?”
“No,” Illya said, realizing his hand had clenched on his own glass. Damn. There was no chance Damien hadn’t seen it.
“Illya.” The word was gentle censure, as well as a knock at his door. It — no, the vodka, Illya told himself — burned along his nerve endings.
He set the glass down, met that chill gaze. “Yes?”
“You and Napoleon.”
Instantly, myriad defenses sprang up — visibly, he saw, as Damien smiled and drew back a few inches.
Illya made himself sigh. “What are you playing at?”
“I’m only asking you a question. You’ve answered it halfway. The other half is your charming and sophisticated partner.”
Illya found himself shaking his head, appalled to realize how many things that was an answer for. He thumped his glass onto the table.
“Illya—” Damien began again, still watching him closely.
“That’s enough,” Illya snapped, meeting that cool blue stare with one equally blue and, at this moment, far colder. “It has nothing to do with you, or with the reason for our meeting.”
Damien sat back, dug into his front jeans pocket, and pulled out something very small and black. He slipped his hand onto the table, next to his and Illya’s glasses. Illya laid his hand on the table, palm up, expectant.
Damien slid the microdisk onto Illya’s hand, his fingertips trickling across sensitive skin. Illya’s throat closed; he looked at the courier, not hiding his reaction.
“His loss,” Damien said quietly, depositing the disk in the center of Illya’s palm. He folded Illya’s tingling fingers over the disk, leaving his hand there for a moment before drawing back. Illya swallowed.
Damien again dug into his pocket, threw a few bills on the table, and slid out. “There’s no reason for either of us to stay now, is there?” He got up and waited for Illya to remember how to breathe.
The Russian shoved the microdisk into his pocket and got up, carefully. It had been a long time since anyone had ... had a deliberate effect on him. Many had tried, to no avail, and some ... some had an effect without trying.
Illya shifted his mind from that and followed Damien to the lobby.
Outside, it was snowing, fat white flakes silently adding to the dirty grey piles on the sidewalks and the roads.
Damien gripped the sleeve of Illya’s leather jacket and pulled him a few steps aside, into a dark alcove next to a tall, well-manicured bush. Illya automatically glanced around, saw the reason for the move when the man who’d followed Damien came out of the bar.
Somewhat the worse for drink, he swayed to the curb as a cab pulled up, saying clearly “The Plaza Hotel” and shoving himself clumsily into the cab. The taxi roared off into the snowy night and Damien and Illya exchanged a look.
“I suppose I’ll be staying somewhere else tonight,” Damien said.
“No luggage?” Illya asked.
Damien shrugged. “I’ll get it tomorrow. Or the next day. No point in taking chances.”
“That’s not what you said inside,” Illya quipped, pulling his jacket tighter. Then he paused, realizing what he was doing. Flirting.
“Not those chances,” Damien said, a smile warm in his voice. He eased farther back into the shadows, and Illya took a small, noncommittal step toward him.
Damien’s eyes moved lightly over his face. “Are you saving yourself for him?”
“No.” Illya didn’t show that he’d been stung by the amusement in Damien’s voice; the impossibility of his feelings had amused him, too, a few times, when he felt strong enough to mock his own stupidity. Heart racing, he attempted, “What makes you think...”
“I’ve seen you together,” Damien said softly. His fingers slid around Illya’s wrists, warm, strong, not threatening, but stating his intent. “I know what you feel.” He moved closer, his breath stroking Illya’s cheek as his scent, warmth and faint spices and maleness, stroked the back of his throat. His eyes fell closed as the sound of Damien’s voice poured over him.
“I know that you feel.”
Illya opened his mouth to protest. The words melted as Damien’s lips met his, warm, skilled. Chaos filled him as Damien’s tongue curled into his mouth, tasting him, confident but undemanding. Damien released his wrists and their bodies touched, close, real, stirring.
Damien drew away, almost imperceptibly, said, “Do you have to go back to UNCLE right away?”
Eyes still closed, Illya shook his head. Then the cold night air surrounded him as Damien moved away. He opened his eyes languorously, seeing Damien at the curb, calling for a taxi. The courier stood, one hand upraised, and Illya smiled inside at the inevitability of it all. Why not? There was no love here, no ties, only the promise of mutual pleasure. Nothing to be afraid of.
Illya shivered, pulled his jacket tighter. He knew the answer. So did Damien. But for a few hours the Russian was willing to try to forget it.
When the cab pulled up, Damien turned to him, cocked his head, smiled his charming smile. Illya followed him into the taxi.
Napoleon Solo slapped the last file folder into his out tray with a sigh. CEA of UNCLE, reduced to doing his own grunt work, simply because his partner’d won the coin toss deciding who was to meet with Mr. Waverly’s favorite little enigma, Damien. The courier was supposed to hand over data that would prove to the UN that the prime minister of Marakhstan, a small but stable democracy, planned a violent coup with weapons and mercenaries drawn from somewhere in Asia. Coupled with photos of the prime minister negotiating with a known arms dealer — to be delivered by courier from San Francisco — Damien’s information should prevent both bloodshed and the loss of a stable democratic ally to the West.
Napoleon shook his head. Damien. Something about that guy ...
He threw down his pen and stood up. It was time to go home and go to bed. Damien was monitored, so UNCLE would know if there were any problems with the data hand-off. The courier had Waverly’s OK, besides, and Illya was a big boy.
He collected his coat and left his office, pointing his body toward the elevator that would take him to UNCLE’s parking garage.
Then he stopped, turned, and headed for monitoring. He tried to tell himself it was routine, his job as CEA, something to do because he wasn’t sleepy, but the truth was he was worried about Illya. The truth was, he always worried about his partner when they were separated, and he didn’t trust Damien.
Napoleon pursued that thought in the elevator. Why didn’t he trust Damien? Mr. Waverly himself vouched for him, had said clearly that he was to be trusted. But that, Napoleon admitted to himself, was beside the point. He didn’t distrust Damien professionally. There was something about the man, something cunning and ... and seductive.
Napoleon stopped just outside the elevator doors. Where had that thought come from?
Damien. And Illya.
What in hell are you thinking? He shook his head, forcefully, and continued walking. What was he picturing, his partner and this ... this courier in some sort of ... homosexual liaison? Ridiculous! Irritated at himself, he calmed his thoughts and took a closer, cooler look at them.
Yes. Damien. Intelligent, amusing, handsome, he projected a kind of feline attraction to which neither sex, so far as Napoleon had seen, was immune. He’d tried it on Napoleon a few times, a come-on so subtle that it had taken the American (no stranger to come-ons from either sex) a while to realize what it was.
There. That was the problem. Napoleon chuckled to himself, still not comfortable. He was picturing Damien trying his sexual wiles on Illya. But it wasn’t the image of Illya coldly rejecting those advances that had him pacing the halls at 1 a.m.
Ridiculous, he told himself. Illya would no more respond to Damien’s insidious charms than ...
Than what? Than you would? But you felt it too.
Katy, one of UNCLE’s oldest and most trusted employees, was alone in surveillance cubicle 8 when Napoleon poked his head into the small, equipment-crammed room. Katy was always assigned to monitor Damien’s handovers.
She pulled the earphones down around her neck. “They’re leaving the restaurant. Mr. Kuryakin has the data dot. I think they’re done.”
Napoleon sat in the next chair. “I’ll listen for a while. Go ahead and go home. It’s late.” He ran a glance over the dials.
“Oh, I really shouldn’t,” she said, clearly wanting to. “We’re supposed to stay on him until 2, and he’s an ‘Ears Only.’“
“But my ears are included in that restriction, my sweet.” Napoleon leaned over, pulled the earphones from around her neck, and gave her the briefest kiss on her pert nose. “Allow me. I couldn’t sleep anyway. Go ahead.”
“Well, since it’s you...” She beamed. “You’re such a dear, Napoleon.”
He leaned back in the chair, put the earphones on. “I know. Merry Christmas.”
The first thing he heard was a door slam. Then Damien’s voice, saying, “The Pierre.” Then the revving of a badly tuned engine. Napoleon wondered if Illya was walking back to UNCLE or if he would take a cab himself, given the weather. Napoleon smiled; a snowstorm like this was nothing to his Russian-bred partner. Maybe he should go pick him up.
“Unless you have a preference?” Damien said suddenly, surprising Napoleon.
The surprise that the courier was not alone, however, was nothing to the next surprise, as Illya’s voice came clearly over the bug.
“I have no preferences in the matter at all.”
Napoleon froze, listening intently. Damien laughed.
Strange. What was Illya doing there now? Napoleon clearly recalled the tech saying the handover’d been completed. But maybe she’d been confused; that could happen with sound-only surveillance. Damien was assigned sound-only surveillance whenever UNCLE met with him, though only Waverly, Napoleon and the tech — in this case Katy — knew about it (Napoleon had wondered whether the courier himself knew, or was regularly bugged without his knowledge). It was one of those “ask me no questions” Waverly edicts.
“Then this should be a very interesting night,” Damien went on.
Napoleon lay both hands over the headphones, pressing them to his ears; his rapt attention was rewarded with several minutes of silence, then the sounds of the men departing the cab and entering a building.
Napoleon listened to the mundane exchange between Damien and a desk clerk, then listened to his partner and the courier — he assumed — riding an elevator up four floors, then walking along a carpeted hallway.
Silence. Then a door was opened.
The door shut, snicked as Damien locked it. Silence. Napoleon waited, tense. Just hand the data over, you bastard. What are you doing?
“I believe we were discussing preferences,” Damien said.
“You’re mistaken,” Illya said. His voice was clear; Napoleon’s experience with the particular bug UNCLE was using enabled him to place his partner as within five feet of Damien. Don’t you get any goddamn closer.
“If you’ve none—”
“Don’t assume yours take precedence,” Illya cut the courier off.
“I was merely planning to voice them,” Damien said, laughter warm under his words.
Heart racing, nerves jittering, Napoleon pictured the two men in the hotel room, facing one another. What in God’s name was going on?
“Go ahead,” Illya said.
Damien said, “I would like to kiss you.”
Napoleon’s guts shriveled — and his temperature leapt. Son of a bitch. I knew it!
“Will you let me?”
Just get the disk and leave, Illya, Napoleon thought. This bastard doesn’t deserve the effort of killing him.
“You already did,” Illya said, and Napoleon felt the flush of blood burn in his neck and face. He felt drunk, suddenly, hot, his pulse pounding in his head, against his skin.
Damien had kissed Illya? And he was still alive? What the hell ..?
“And it was very nice,” Damien said. “But I would like to really kiss you.”
“Then come here,” Illya said, his voice taut, suspicious.
Napoleon hissed, “No.” Then snapped his jaw shut.
“We aren’t enemies, you know,” Damien said, “Just because we aren’t ...” Napoleon heard them move together, heard Damien’s voice drop ... “exactly ...” lower, softer, words exhaled against lips now less than an inch away ... “friends.”
The microphone was muffled for a moment; a whisking sound and a deep moan followed. Napoleon’s blood took the short route to his crotch, startling him.
He leaned forward, listening with his whole body. He was hard as a rock, blood hammering in his body and his head; and angry, too angry to be surprised or embarrassed at his own reaction. His own goddamned partner was in there with this man, this stranger, this ... Damien son of a bitch, within a heartbeat of fucking him...
“Tell me what you want,” Illya purred, his voice still edged with danger. Napoleon leaned over the counter, legs spread, one hand moving irresistibly to soothe the ache between his legs as the other pressed the earphones tighter to his head. If Illya didn’t trust Damien, what the hell was he doing there, doing this with him?
“I want you,” Damien said. Faint sounds of cloth against cloth, a tiny hum of wordless pleasure as (Napoleon imagined) their mouths met.
The door slid open to reveal one of the surveillance technicians. “Mr. Solo —”
“Out,” he rasped. His tone shoved her back. She disappeared and the door slid shut again. He pressed his hand over his cock, hearing the whispery shift of discarded clothing, the heavy breathing, imagining their bodies against each other.
Bedsprings creaked, and Napoleon jumped.
“You feel good,” Damien growled. “More...”
The breathing deepened, punctuated by small whimpers of need, of acute feeling. He rubbed himself through the cloth of his pants, hearing Illya’s voice, half words, half pure sensation:
“Yes ... yes ... there ...”
Napoleon bit his lip as his cock pulsed. Illya’s breathing — as familiar as his own, now strange and electric in its passion — filled his head; the Russian moaned, short, uncontrolled rhythmic sounds, counterpoint to the bed squeaks. Napoleon heard his own groan as he stroked himself, seeing Illya’s naked golden body rocked by another, then seeing himself in that place, tight against his partner, skin silking over skin as he pumped into Illya, driving primal sounds from him.
“God...” Napoleon squeezed himself as Illya cried out, his voice blending with Damien’s wordless shout of completion. Napoleon’s body convulsed as he came, hot, wet and sloppy inside his trousers, his hips pumping in the chair, hands clutching at the earphones as if he could somehow get hold of his partner and share the moment with him.
His senses returned and he sat straighter, sweating, ashamed and still angry, listening to two sets of lungs easing down from the heights, two voices moaning softly in the aftermath of satisfaction. Napoleon looked at his own clenched hands. He longed to strangle Damien with those hands. He longed to ...
“God,” Damien said, hoarse, laughter in his voice. “You surprise me.”
Illya said, “Do I?” His tone held so many feelings Napoleon had never heard there before that his throat closed in what felt like grief. Damn it. What was he saying, what was he feeling, what was he doing with that son of a bitch?
You aren’t angry. You’re jealous.
No. Listen. He focused again, focused past the tight pain in his chest.
Damien said, “You play it so well.” He was still amused.
“Play what?” Illya said.
“What makes you think it’s an act?”
Illya’s voice was ... Napoleon made himself fake objectivity, analysis. Sated, yes. Amused, perhaps. Comfortable? Maybe. But there was no warmth, no affection, nothing of the tone Illya used when ...
...when he talks to me.
Jealous. You stupid ... you’re jealous.
“Because I don’t think this was,” Damien said, still amused. “Or if it was, it was a good one.” Damien chuckled again. “A damn’ good one.”
“Thank you,” Illya said archly.
Damien sighed, low and sensual. “Your partner is a fool if he says no to this.”
He doesn’t care about him, Napoleon told himself. Damien was magnetically appealing; he’d felt the pull himself. But repeating to himself that Illya didn’t care was cold comfort when his partner was lying next to the bastard, when they’d just finished...
Your partner is a fool if he says no to this.
But he’d never said no to it; Illya had never asked him. Obviously the Russian assumed he would be offended or horrified.
Or maybe he doesn’t want you.
Napoleon unclenched his fists again, focused his eyes on the control panel. This was a tape he didn’t want falling into unfriendly hands — defined as any hands at all. It was 2:08.
He quickly located the proper dials and erased the tape. He gave it a quick listen to doublecheck, then turned off the equipment and left.
When he got home, he went to bed. But not to sleep.
Illya returned to UNCLE headquarters just before 3 a.m., exhausted and chilled from his journey through the streets, but with the data disk still safely in his possession. He deposited it with records and headed for the office he and Napoleon shared to finish off the report. He ran into Mark Slate on the way.
“Why are you here at this hour?” he asked. The Brit looked as disheveled as Illya felt.
“Just got in from Kenya,” Mark said. “Bit of a tight spot with the satrapy in Nairobi, but April and I came through. Our reward’s the paperwork. But after that we’re free as little THRUSHes for the holidays.” He grimaced. “You?”
“Same. Finishing up a milk run,” Illya said.
“Your dashing partner was here a while ago,” Mark said idly, looking around. “Guess he gave up on waiting up for you.”
“It wasn’t anything interesting anyway,” Illya said; not a lie, exactly, but ashes in his mouth all the same. “Just collecting a data disk.”
“That Damien character again, Napoleon said.” Mark nodded. “I know Waverly trusts him, but I think Napoleon doesn’t like him.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Well, he said so. Said he doesn’t trust him. Made a ... well, let’s say an unflattering reference to his sexual inclinations.” Mark smiled wryly.
Illya closed his eyes briefly. He could still taste Damien, mingling with the bitter flavor of sudden fear. “Napoleon’s entitled to his opinions,” he said.
“Well, whatever he heard tonight didn’t make him any more inclined to join the man’s fan club,” Mark said.
“Heard?” Illya echoed.
“He was in surveillance,” Mark went on, then yawned. “Sorry. Long day. Sent Katy home and shouldered the duty himself.”
“Napoleon ... “ Illya felt his blood depart his extremities, huddling as if frightened in his core. Cold, he forced himself to continue. “Napoleon was monitoring Damien?”
“Seems so. Up until about 2,” Slate said. “He looked like hell when he left, too, I can tell you. Probably bored stiff.” The British agent grinned.
Illya nodded. “Probably.”
“The old man’s going to be miffed when he finds out the tapes got erased.”
Illya scowled. “Erased?”
“Blank, anyway. Napoleon probably didn’t know what he was doing. Should’ve had a technician in there with him. He was supposed to.” Mark shrugged. “Anyway, you got the data. All’s well that ends well.” He grinned. “Good work, mate, and happy Christmas.”
Illya watched Mark walk away, stunned, feeling his emotional house of cards come fluttering down. Damn it to hell. He lived like a monk, rarely seeking intimacy with women and never indulging with men. And the one damned time he gave in to this mysterious courier, this damned Damien, who didn’t touch his heart but did stir his blood ...
An automaton, Illya went into his and Napoleon’s office and filled out the paperwork, tidily glossing over the time between the disk exchange and his return to the office. He very rarely did this sort of defensive self-editing; he rarely had to. But he was effective at it, as he was at everything.
He stared at the completed report. Effective. Efficient. He could do anything and everything except that which he most wanted to do.
Illya blinked at his fists, lying clenched atop the papers. Then he got up, collected his coat, and went home to bed. But not to sleep.
Illya returned to the office the next morning fully prepared to face Napoleon’s wrath. Or offense. Or disgust. Or insistence that their partnership be ended. All of the above, really, in turns.
Napoleon wasn’t in. Illya first dealt with the paperwork that couldn’t wait, then signed out for the week’s vacation he’d requested, knowing, with a combination of relief and dread, that he wouldn’t see his partner until after Christmas. Napoleon had planned to spend the holidays with his family in upstate New York; he must’ve left a little early.
He’d even invited Illya along, weeks (a million years) ago. Illya, assuming the invitation to be form rather than genuine, had declined. If he were religious, he’d have thanked God for that now. Nothing would have been more horrible to Napoleon than a week with family and a partner he was ... what? Furious with? Disgusted with? Frantic to get away from?
Illya would have preferred to get it over with, but as that was impossible, he strove to drive the issue from his mind, all the while knowing that to be equally impossible.
Aspen Creek was a pretty little California mountain town with rustic cabins, semi-decent skiing, and a respected annual jazz-blues festival that approximately doubled its off-season population of roughly 1,000. Illya dropped off his bag at the one large hotel that doubled as the ski lodge and boasted Aspen Creek’s best restaurant. After the automatic, if in this case perfunctory, check for bugs or other unwelcome guests, he pulled on a jacket and went for a walk.
The main street of the town was decorated for Christmas, with lights in every window, glittering garlands strung across the road, and carols issuing from various tinny record players or radios.
Illya found it pleasant. He realized he’d been in the U.S. long enough to take some level of homely comfort from American holiday trappings. It was different from home, to be sure, but ... this was his home now. That thought, usually comforting, was painful at the moment. Home was UNCLE. In large part, home was Napoleon.
And you are about to be evicted.
Let it go, he scolded himself. He felt stupid, inefficient, in dwelling on something he could do nothing about. Time enough to deal with it when he returned to New York. With effort he folded thoughts of his partner into the back of his mind.
A poster in a cafe window indicated the festival opened at 4 p.m. today, in the park gazebo, with a semi-well-known sax player and his band. Illya paused, considering the lineup, and found himself smiling. At least he’d find some enjoyable distractions here.
He took a detour to walk through the park, a square of frost-wounded grass at the edge of town with some picnic tables and a large white gazebo currently being swarmed by technicians laying cables and setting up lights and amplifiers.
Illya continued past them. The thumps and shouts and swearing faded as he climbed the hillside outside of town, entering the quiet woods.
Skiiers were currently thin on the ground, he’d been informed, due to snow in the same condition; though it was cold enough, only a light dusting carpeted the pine-covered hills.
He climbed briskly for a while, enjoying the effort, then stopped beside a tree to watch his breath plume and scan his surroundings.
That was when he felt the tickle on the back of his neck. His first reaction was: Not now; I’m on holiday.
His second was to move. Smoothly, without appearing rushed, he ducked into a stand of pines, hugging as close to the nearest trunk as he could. He parted the sticky branches with his fingers and peered back down the snow-dusted slope he’d just climbed.
He saw two men in black, about 50 yards away, wearing light jackets and caps, no visible weapons, slowly climbing the slopes, scanning ground and trees as they walked. Looking for someone.
Illya sighed. The odds they were looking for him were slim but not nonexistent.
He drew his gun. They were easy targets, in their black against the snowy ground. White clouds formed around their heads as they panted from the exertion of the steep climb. They didn’t talk or signal one another, though they kept within sight of each other. Illya hesitated to shoot, even with mercy bullets; it was possible their intent was innocent and had nothing to do with him.
One of them paused, looking down, and beckoned the other over.
Footprints, Illya figured. He also had a good idea whose they were; the men were following the path of least resistance up the mountainside, as he had done.
The men conferred, looked in his direction, and reached inside their jackets.
Illya moved. A heavier stand of conifers farther up the mountain promised more comprehensive coverage, and he figured he could make it there while staying out of the men’s line of sight. He scrambled up the steep slippery slope and buried himself among the trees. Then he chose a likely pine, holstered his gun, and climbed as high as he could into its sappy branches. Once secure, he drew his gun again, caught his breath, and listened. Visibility was fairly poor, but the day was quiet and the wind calm; he thought he would hear anyone approach.
He listened to his heart beat for a few minutes, straining to see through the branches. All he saw was glimpses of sky and mountainside.
Then, distantly, he heard the sound of boots crunching snow. He steadied himself and tracked the sounds, aiming his gun in the direction of the approaching person.
The crunching steps grew louder and he caught a glimpse of brown and blue at the base of his tree.
Illya almost lost his grip on the trunk. He holstered his gun and moved a few branches down where the view was clearer.
Napoleon Solo stopped at the foot of the tree and looked up, UNCLE Special in hand.
“I’ve heard the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said, then scanned their vicinity quickly before looking up again. “Would you care to test that theory?”
Illya dropped lightly down beside Napoleon, one hand trailing along the supple branches as he landed to maintain his balance.
“We should get back into town,” Napoleon said, not looking at him. “I imagine they’ll be back, but I don’t think they’ll do any shooting with all those people around. Besides, they want me alive.”
A glance at Illya beckoned him; they started down the hillside back toward town.
Illya marched in silence — in truth, needing his breath and his attention for the steep and slippery path — until they were at the edge of the park. More technicians were there; it’d turned into a modest bedlam.
Napoleon stopped, scanned the increased activity, then said, “Where are you staying?”
“Aspen Creek Lodge.”
Again the glance. “Small world.”
“Small town,” Illya retorted. “Why are you here?”
Napoleon started across the park. “Someone had to pick up the Marakhstan microfilm from Takamura in San Francisco. Once I did that, I was footloose and fancy free. And in the neighborhood, globally speaking.”
“I thought Goldman...” Illya began. Napoleon shook his head.
“Shot in Algeria. He’ll be all right, but we were a little short handed.”
Illya stopped. “So you took on the milk run? Two days before Christmas? When you were supposed to be on holiday with your family?”
Napoleon stopped too, though he continued to scan the street and the people on it. “We should probably get off the street in case those guys come back. Besides, I’m hungry. I’ve been on the move for 14 hours.” He took hold of his partner’s arm, pulled him toward a diner. Illya wondered at the familiar gesture. Surely Napoleon should be chary of touching him now? Surely it should not feel so comfortable, so much as it always had?
He must want it over with. He must’ve come to say our partnership is over. He couldn’t even wait until after the holidays.
They laid claim to a booth by the front window where they could watch the street. There were only four other customers, both couples, seated at tables in the back. The waitress brought them water, menus with sticky spots, and stainless steel cutlery. A little plastic Christmas tree with tiny red plastic bulbs on it sat at the edge of the table between the salt and pepper shakers. Gene Autry was singing about Rudolph somewhere in the kitchen.
Napoleon picked up his menu, remarked from behind it, “I saw you go up into the hills and I went after you. When I realized I was being followed I doubled back. They must’ve picked up your trail thinking it was mine. I suppose they think I still have the microfilm.”
The American rolled his eyes. “I passed it off to our L.A. courier.”
“You should tell them that.”
“I will, if I run into them again,” Napoleon said. “My treat — what’ll you have?”
“The reason you’re here,” Illya said coolly.
Napoleon lowered the menu, met his glare levelly. Then his head snaked forward and he said, puzzled, “Do you know your eyes actually get bluer when you narrow them like that? Is that scientifically possible?”
“The only eye color annoyance was ever responsible for is black,” Illya said, wondering what in the world was going on.
Napoleon said, “You won’t hit me. Not right now, at any rate. I’m buying.”
“Merry Christmas, gents. What’ll you have?” the waitress asked, and popped her gum.
“The house special burger,” Napoleon said, glancing at Illya for any sign of objection. “Two of them, with everything. Rare. And coffee, please.”
She made a few marks on her notepad, popped her gum, and said, “Gotcha.”
Once she’d walked away, Illya sighed.
“Napoleon. Please. If your intention is to drive me insane, you’re succeeding.” He’s been driving you insane nearly every day for five years.
Napoleon looked at him, away, back at him, running a hand through his hair. “It isn’t my intention. I just have been ... afraid to start this conversation.”
Illya said, “You came all the way out here to have it.”
Napoleon blew out a breath. “I suppose I did.”
“Wait.” Illya leaned back, away from his partner. “Before we have it, I want to say something.” He saw Napoleon’s body tense, saw his face tighten. What is he expecting? “I want to say thank you.”
Napoleon’s brows rose. “For?”
Illya nodded at their situation. “For coming all the way out here. For making the effort. For being the kind of man who ... wouldn’t think of handling it any other way.”
“The personal touch? You make it sound like I’m planning to kill you,” Napoleon said.
Illya shrugged. “Kill me, transfer me, terminate me ... there is a host of possibilities.”
“Illya.” Napoleon leaned forward, anxious, intent. “None of those is a possibility. Jesus, what are you expecting?”
Illya chuckled sourly. “The worst. Always.”
“You know that I ... heard you.” It wasn’t a question.
Illya met his gaze, chin up, stubborn. “And I know that right now you are hoping that I will be able to explain it in such a way that you won’t have to believe your partner is homosexual.”
“You’ve had relationships with women,” Napoleon said, knowing it was far from the point. Illya crossed his arms over his chest.
“Bisexual, then. Sexually attracted to men. That is the issue here, isn’t it? Does the idea disgust you? Does it offend you?”
Napoleon shook his head. Typical Illya; right to the point. “No. I was ... surprised. Very surprised. Not offended, not disgusted. I’m not quite the provincial prude you apparently think me.”
Illya snorted. “Rudolph” ended and “I Saw Three Ships” began.
“Once I got over the initial ... startlement, I was ...” Napoleon sorted the vivid memories. “I was angry that I hadn’t known.”
“Known what, exactly?”
Napoleon stared at him. “You aren’t going to cut me any slack at all, are you?”
“This is too important. Can you work with — can you trust — a man who has sex with men? You can’t have any doubt. I can’t either. Now that you know, it must all be out in the open between us, if we are to remain partners.”
“You’ve been discreet,” Napoleon said, aware that, again, he wasn’t answering his partner’s question. “I didn’t know, and I would never have guessed.”
“Surely a bisexual spy’s discretion doesn’t surprise you.”
“Why are you mad at me?” Napoleon complained.
“Because you won’t just say what you’re feeling,” Illya snapped. “Just say it. Whatever it is. You came all the way to California to say it. Whatever I am, whatever you’re feeling, we’ve always been honest.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Napoleon said. “It’s not that you ... that you find men ...” He moved the fork in front of him, left, then right. “ ... that you .. like men. It’s that I didn’t know it.”
“I had a very good reason,” Illya said. “We work very closely. We sleep, sometimes, in the same bed.” He wasn’t about to say that, those times, he himself didn’t sleep.
Napoleon waited. Nothing. “So?” he prompted, turning the fork upside down, then back again.
“We are partners. We live more closely than many married couples. If you are at all uncomfortable with my ... proximity, we have to deal with it. It could be disastrous during a mission.”
Illya sighed, plucked the fork out of Napoleon’s nervous fingers and set it down. “You came here to talk to me, Napoleon. You might notice you are not doing that.”
Napoleon looked at his hands. “It isn’t easy for me. I want to say ... a lot of things. I didn’t think I’d say most of them. I didn’t think I’d have to.”
“You have to,” Illya said. He could never have expressed how proud he was at that moment that his partner gamely stepped up to the plate. Whatever happens, however appalled he is, however horrified, he cares enough, and is brave enough, to come here and talk to me man to man. This is why...
“Things like ... you are my partner and my friend. I ... I rely on you. I trust you. I love you.”
“Knowing what you now do,” Illya said mildly, “that is a courageous thing to say.”
Napoleon laughed. “Not really. You don’t have a very high opinion of me, do you? Or you think I don’t have a very high opinion of you, which is the same thing.”
Illya said nothing. Napoleon leaned closer.
“I thought we trusted each other completely,” he said.
“You were wrong,” Illya whispered.
The waitress came back with their burgers and coffee, then went away, eyeing them curiously.
Napoleon closed his eyes briefly. “Illya. Please.” He knew this was hard on his partner. He doubted Illya knew how hard it was on him. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
A sharp crack caused them both to dive under the table. The plate glass window shattered in the next split second, showering glass across their table, chairs and hamburgers. A woman screamed and a man shouted: “What the hell?”
“Get down!” Napoleon shouted at them.
“I thought you said they wanted you alive,” Illya said from under the table as they both drew their guns.
Napoleon shrugged. “Oops.”
The door banged open and two men in black darted in, semi-automatics upraised.
“No one move!” the first one shouted. The second man, short and squat, grabbed the waitress; she dropped her coffeepot, splattering glass and coffee across the linoleum floor. He wrapped an arm around her neck and put the muzzle of the gun to her head. She made a noise, a strangled scream.
“Solo!” the first man shouted. “He’ll kill her!”
Napoleon sprang up, hands in the air, UNCLE Special dangling from his finger.
“I believe you’re looking for me.”
Two more men in black, big men, burst out of the kitchen, immediately aiming their weapons at Napoleon.
“Drop it!” The first man yelled, then shifted his two-fisted aim to cover Illya, still behind the table measuring options. “You too. Up here. Now or she dies.”
Illya rose slowly and set his gun on the table. Napoleon let his weapon fall from his fingers.
“Let her go,” he said. The other two gunmen moved in closer, their aim tight on the UNCLE agents.
“Turn around!” the man barked. “Hands behind your backs.”
The agents were grabbed, roughly handcuffed, and patted down. Their communicators were thrown on the floor. They were dragged backward out of the diner and shoved into the back seat of a black sedan, a burly gunman crammed in on either side, pressing them together.
The last two got in front, the squat man behind the wheel. Four doors slammed and the car roared to life.
Glancing back as they raced up the street, Napoleon saw the waitress standing on the sidewalk, hands over her mouth, in front of the shattered window of the cafe.
The car careened up the road, out of Aspen Creek, and onto the highway.
“Can we talk about this?” Napoleon said. The man nearest him backhanded him.
Napoleon blinked, glanced at Illya. The steady, unafraid, prepared-for-anything look he knew so well met his eyes, and he smiled fractionally.
They drove less than a mile along the tree-lined highway that led back to civilization. Clouds were moving in from over the mountains, dimming the wintry afternoon light.
They crossed a bridge. Suddenly the passenger pointed, saying a word Napoleon didn’t know, and the driver abruptly turned onto a dirt road leading into the forest.
They couldn’t have planned this, Napoleon thought; they must be looking for a quiet out of the way spot to beat the microfilm out of him.
Then the passenger shouted something else and the driver stomped on the brake. Off in the trees was what looked like a shack or cabin. The driver pulled the car into the trees and the agents were unloaded and shoved into the derelict one-room structure smelling faintly of old smoke and dust. Windows and doors gaped; the only furniture was a bench against one wall and a heavy wooden table askew against the other. A stone fireplace faced the door.
One man went back to the car as the squat fellow pulled out another set of handcuffs. As the other two held their guns at the ready, he passed the cuffs behind one leg of the heavy table, then fastened the agents’ cuffs together.
“Sit on the table,” he ordered, and the agents did so, shoulder to shoulder, their arms pulled taut by the short length of their chains.
The first man came back in, carrying a lamp which he set on the bench. Then he turned to face the UNCLE agents, the other three framing him, their guns still drawn. He was taller than the squat man, but not big; the other two were tall and bulky with muscle and fat.
He crossed his arms and looked at them. “UNCLE.”
“So you give up?” Napoleon said. The scowl on the man’s face explained his English wasn’t up to the reference.
“You know what I want,” the man said to Napoleon.
Napoleon shifted on the table, pulling at the chains. The table felt regrettably solid. “May we at least know the name of our gracious host?”
He smiled. “Tom.”
“Tom?” Napoleon nodded at the two bruisers and the dwarf. “They must be Dick and Harry and ..?”
“Ivan,” Illya supplied.
Tom smiled wider, showing somewhat fewer teeth than average. “Yes. Tom and Dick and Harry and Ivan.” His accent sharpened noticeably on the last name.
“You would be Prime Minister Lanikhoff’s goons,” Napoleon said. “Am I right?”
“This word ... goons. I do not know it,” Tom said.
Illya said something, presumably an accurate translation of the term in a language familiar to the men. Tom’s eyes narrowed and his cohorts snarled like a pack of rabid curs.
Napoleon inclined his head toward his partner. “That was what I meant.”
“Where is the microfilm?” Tom said, reaching into a coat pocket. He drew out and donned leather gloves.
“I don’t have it. I handed it off in Los Angeles.”
Tom stepped forward and backhanded him, then stepped back.
“No. We caught your contact, Agent Lewis. He didn’t have it. There was not time for him to pass it off to anyone else. We know you have it. Tell us and we’ll kill you quickly. Don’t tell us, and we’ll start killing you, slowly, until you do.”
“Well, if we’re going to end up dead either way, I’d just as soon go knowing you didn’t get what you wanted.” Napoleon let his lips curl into what a casual observer might mistake for a smile.
Tom looked at Illya. “What about you?”
Illya blinked. “What about me?”
Tom slapped him, a perfunctory blow. “Will you talk?”
The Russian shrugged. “I’m willing to talk. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about what you’re after.”
Tom scowled, looked back at Napoleon. “What is he?” he nodded toward Illya. “Your male ... what is the word? Ski bunny? Your little blond bunny-boy?”
His sidekicks laughed and made a couple of anatomically awkward jokes.
“You know what they say,” Napoleon said, his tone cold, “Blonds have more fun.”
“Whoever said that should be shot,” Illya muttered. “I volunteer.”
Tom turned to the dwarf. “Get some wood ... Ivan. It’s cold. We may be here some time, and I want our guests to be comfortable.”
Napoleon and Illya exchanged a glance. Anything said in English was presumably said for their benefit; they both had cause to know that fire was an effective persuader.
The dwarf left, and Tom returned his attention to the agents.
“You should just tell me where the microfilm is,” he said. “If you don’t, after we have searched you, we will start to give you pain.” He rubbed his chin as he regarded them, as though he were imagining how much they could take. “You will not like it.”
“I’ll bet you will, though,” Napoleon said, meeting the man’s black gaze.
“Separate them,” Tom said. The bruisers came forward. Dick held his gun to Illya’s head while Harry unlocked and relocked the cuffs. Illya remained chained around the table leg and Harry pulled Napoleon into the middle of the room in front of the fireplace. He removed the handcuffs while Dick kept his weapon trained on Napoleon.
Tom went to the bench. Harsh yellow light flared in the cabin, erasing the gathering dark.
He straightened, looked at Napoleon. “Remove your clothing. Otherwise, Harry will do it.”
The bruiser holding the handcuffs sneered.
Napoleon shrugged and began undressing. He removed his shoes first, then stripped methodically, neither slowly nor in self-conscious haste. At least part of the intent here was to humiliate, so he simply refused to feel humiliated. He handed each item of clothing to Harry, who in turn passed it off to Tom. Tom searched each piece thoroughly, the lamplight turning his movements into huge shifting shadows against one cabin wall. He left the shoes until last, while Napoleon stood naked in the cold room, his feet going numb against the icy floor.
At last Tom set the shoes down on the bench, next to the pile of clothing. He sighed.
“You would make this much easier if you simply told me where the microfilm is.”
Muscles tensed to keep from shivering, Napoleon said, “I did tell you. I handed it off in Los Angeles.” He rubbed his arms, considered simply asking for his clothes back. He dismissed the idea, also quelling the urge to look at his partner. The reassurance of an exchanged glance right now could reveal a weakness he didn’t want to show.
Ivan stomped back into the cabin with his arms full of wood. He paused at the sight of Napoleon standing naked in the middle of the room, then walked around that tableau and piled the wood in the hearth, starting a fire that crackled and spat sparks everywhere before settling down to burn steadily.
“Very well,” Tom said. “The other one.”
Harry grabbed Napoleon, spun him around and shoved him against the table. Napoleon grimaced as his chest and stomach scraped across the rough wood. Harry handcuffed him again, then yanked him upright next to Illya.
“Some vacation,” Napoleon said out of the side of his mouth as his partner was detached from the table in his turn. The American was again chained around the table leg.
Harry shoved Illya into the middle of the room, tucking his handcuffs into his front pocket and holding out his hands.
“Your clothes,” Tom said.
As Napoleon had done, Illya stripped to his skin and handed over his clothing. And as with Napoleon, Tom searched every item thoroughly, cursing when he threw down the last piece of clothing.
Illya, watching the search impassively, started to back away again, toward the table and the privacy of at least some shadows.
Tom got up. “No no,” he said, grinning. “Stay here in the light.”
Illya stopped, not shifting his cold stare from Tom’s face. Napoleon recognized that his partner had withdrawn into himself; it was his particular survival technique when confronted with pain or torture. Rather than assuming a stoic facade, as Napoleon had done, Illya simply ... disappeared emotionally. Enemies invariably found it infuriating. Napoleon, watching his partner stand there in the firelight, felt a fleeting, fiery touch of the reaction that had overwhelmed him two days before in monitoring. He shook his head, dispelling the distraction with a mental curse at his own lapse.
Napoleon wrenched at the table. Too solid to break, but if he had a chance he could get his shoulder under it and tip it. He’d need a second or two of distraction, though...
Tom looked him up and down, and his bruisers chuckled. “I think we will try another form of persuasion, yes?”
Illya said nothing, not reacting when Tom stepped closer and ran his fingers along one bare shoulder. “Very pretty,” he mocked.
Illya responded in Russian, each word an icicle, and Tom blanched in sudden anger.
Napoleon groaned inwardly.
Eyes never leaving Illya’s face, Tom stepped back, said, “Kill him.”
Dick and Harry raised their pistols, stiff armed, grinning, eager. Napoleon saw Illya’s eyes narrow, a kind of preparatory flinch.
“Wait!” Napoleon snapped.
They waited, and Napoleon’s heart lurched back into action.
“Don’t tell them anything,” Illya said through clenched teeth, staring at the gun muzzles in his face.
“Shut up or I let them kill you,” Tom said, turning to Napoleon. “Yes? You were saying something?”
“It’s in the hotel—”
“—in my room.”
Illya muttered a Russian curse under his breath, and Tom smiled.
“Yes. Good. Room number, please?”
“Thirty-two,” Napoleon said.
“How sweet that you would do this to save your friend. Not that it matters. You—” he pushed Illya—”Back over there with your friend. Ivan!” He barked, and the dwarf jumped up from the fire.”We will go to the hotel and get the microfilm. You will stay here, with ... Dick and Harry. If we find the microfilm...” He shrugged. “We will kill you quickly. If we do not, I will be angry, and you will suffer for it.”
“It’s in the bathroom,” Napoleon said. “In the medicine cabinet in a bottle marked aspirin.”
Tom beckoned Ivan and they left. The two bruisers settled, one on the bench near the lamp, one leaning on the stone mantelpiece. The agents watched them as two car doors slammed, an engine coughed to life, got louder, then faded into silence.
“Are you cold?” Harry, leaning on the fireplace, grinned at Illya.
The Russian ignored him.
“I think you are.” Harry straightened up. Anger flared in the pit of Napoleon’s stomach. “I could fix that.”
Dick laughed. Harry advanced on Illya in two long strides, looming over him. He grabbed his shoulders, bending him back over the table. Illya didn’t struggle; when Harry turned him bodily around and reached for his belt buckle, Illya twisted, grabbed the dangling handcuffs and swung them, looping the chain around Harry’s neck.
Dick shouted, jumping to his feet, but Harry was between him and his target, eyes bulging as Illya tightened the chain around his adam’s apple.
Napoleon dropped into a crouch, set his shoulder under the table top and heaved, sliding his handcuffs free of the table leg.
With a gurgling sound Harry twisted and fell forward, Illya on his back. Seeing a clear shot, Dick fired. Napoleon dove at him, hitting him in the gut with his shoulder, driving him into the bench and the wall. Dick fired again, wildly; the bullet ricocheted off the fireplace.
Dick brought the gun butt down on Napoleon’s back once, twice, but Napoleon drove against him, pushing with icy bare feet against the floor to keep the man off balance.
“Napoleon!” Illya shouted behind him. “Move!”
Napoleon curled and rolled to the side, hitting the floor on his back in time to see Illya standing over Harry’s body with Harry’s gun in hand. Illya fired twice and Dick slapped into the wall. Flailing, he dropped his gun and slid down to the bench, where he slumped to one side, eyes still open. The sharp stink of gunpowder hung in the air, mixing with the piney scent of the fire.
Napoleon took in a breath, twisting to get his feet under him. Illya collected Dick’s gun, set them both aside, and knelt beside Harry’s body to search for the handcuff keys. Napoleon got up and went to the door. It was dark and heavily overcast. He was shivering again, as much from the cold as from reaction.
He felt movement behind him. Illya caught up his hands and unlocked the handcuffs, dropping them to the floor.
“Thanks.” Both men went to the bench and collected their clothes, standing close to the small fire, already burning low from lack of wood.
“You all right?” Napoleon asked. Illya simply nodded, sorting his clothing into an efficient pile that would allow him to dress as quickly as possible.
Doing the same, Napoleon asked, “What the hell did you say to him?”
“Who?” Underwear and socks, quickly, then jeans. He slid his feet into his shoes and started pulling on his sweater.
“Tom.” Napoleon did up his pants and started buttoning every other button of his shirt. “What did you say to make him so mad?”
Illya paused, blinked, shook his head. “I don’t remember.” He picked up his jacket. “Probably something about the rodents he obviously has as ancestors.”
Napoleon wrapped his coat around himself and collected their borrowed firearms. Both were 9mm Berettas.
“Why am I being put through this again?” Illya asked through chattering teeth.
“We’re preventing a coup,” Napoleon said, checking the clip of one of the weapons. “The prime minister of Marakhstan is assembling troops and arms to take over.”
“And why do we care?”
“He has longstanding communist ties. UNCLE wants to preserve a stable democracy that’s friendly to the West. Also—” Napoleon tossed the second gun to his partner— “Marakhstan’s discovered a rich oil deposit in its northern mountains. And the Soviets know it too.”
“Ah.” Illya popped the clip, checked it and the chamber, reinserted the clip. “Altruistic as always.”
“You’re alliterating again; we’ll have to up your medication.” He clapped his partner’s shoulder. “Come on.”
They went to the door. The dirt road leading to the highway was little more than a dim tunnel through the trees.
“Well?” Illya said.
“Well...” Napoleon shrugged. “We walk.”
They did so. It started to snow just after they reached the highway. Keeping it in sight on their left, they walked in the shadow of the trees, alert for any cars coming up from town.
Napoleon grumbled, “You had to be out in the middle of nowhere.”
Illya snarled back, “They were following you.”
They walked in silence then, until they came to the bridge. They stopped, looked down the steep bank to the rocky creek, then looked at each other.
“Dark. Steep. Probably icy, definitely wet,” Napoleon said. “Not a good idea.”
“Do you want to be caught on the bridge when your friends come back?” Illya countered. “We’d have to jump.”
Napoleon grimaced. “After you.”
They slipped and scrambled down the side. Halfway down, Napoleon saved his partner, by the skin of one hastily grabbed sleeve, from a headlong plunge into the water. He steadied the Russian for a moment, then ruffled his snow-damp hair. Illya pulled away like a little boy annoyed at being caressed by his mother, but Napoleon thought he’d spotted a fleeting smile.
They splashed through the ankle-deep water and climbed the other side. They were shivering despite their exertion, and their lower legs were wet and freezing, but they could see the lights of town amongst the trees. They stumbled along with renewed energy, still watchful for the black sedan.
The main street was quiet, with only a few hardy revelers still strolling, heavily wrapped against the cold. Incredibly, faint music carried from the adjacent park to demonstrate that the festival went on despite the snow.
The black sedan was nowhere to be seen. The agents glanced at one another, trudged up the slushy sidewalk toward the hotel.
“There’s only the one road out of town,” Illya said. “If they’d left...”
“And they wouldn’t leave anyway, not without the microfilm.”
“So it wasn’t really in your medicine cabinet,” Illya said, unsurprised.
“Of course not. I handed it off in L.A., like I said. Only not to the designated courier. We did a little bait and switch, in case we had an audience. Good thing, too.”
“For whom?” Illya countered darkly.
“Sorry,” Napoleon said, stung. “Obviously, if I’d known they’d followed me as well as Lewis...”
A car engine roared as they stepped off the curb in front of a narrow, dark alley. The black sedan lurched toward them from the darkness; Napoleon grabbed Illya, half a step ahead of him, and lunged backward, hitting the ground hard. The car missed by inches.
The agents rolled through the slush up against the nearest building as the car spun sideways and stopped. Both men drew their borrowed guns and took aim as the passenger-side window opened. Shots cracked into the brick building above their heads and someone shrieked. The agents split, moving in opposite directions as they poured gunfire into the open window. The windshield shattered. The few people on the streets quickly scrambled for the safety of whatever building was nearest.
Return fire stopped and the car started to roll forward.
Guns still ready, the agents ran crouched to the car, Illya circling around to the driver’s side, Napoleon approaching the passenger door.
The car gained speed as Illya reached for the door handle. When he wrenched it open, Ivan the dwarf slumped sideways and fell at his feet, eyes and mouth gaping. Illya hopped over him and slid into the driver’s seat, hitting the brake and putting the car into park. Tom lay crumpled on the floor in front of the passenger seat.
Napoleon poked his head in the window as Illya turned off the ignition.
“Going my way?” He opened the passenger door and checked Tom. Illya got out and bent to examine Ivan, straightening up as Napoleon came around the car.
“Dead?” Napoleon asked.
“As the proverbial doornail,” Illya said.
“Glad to see you’re getting into the Christmas spirit,” Napoleon said. “Their fearless leader’s dead too. We’d better—”
“Police. Drop your guns.”
They turned to see a deputy sheriff, revolver in his hands.
The agents looked at one another, carefully set their guns on the hood of the car, and waited for the deputy to approach.
A middle-aged man with a slight paunch and red hair, he stepped carefully nearer, glanced at the car and Ivan’s body. “What’s going on here?”
“We’re with the U.N.C.L.E.,” Napoleon said. “I have identification in my breast pocket, if you’ll allow me.”
“Slow,” the deputy said. Napoleon obeyed, drawing out his card and setting it on the car hood. The deupty eased forward, picked up the card, and examined it. He looked at Illya. “You with UNCLE too?”
“He’s my partner,” Napoleon said. “Can we put our hands down now, officer? It’s been a long day.”
The deputy nodded. “I’m sure one of you has some kind of explanation for this,” he said, holstering his gun. A few brave souls began to poke their noses back out onto the street.
“It’s a long story, deputy,” Napoleon said, lowering his arms.
“I love long stories,” the deputy replied. “Shall we step into my office?”
“Someone should probably remove the ... ah ... bodies from public view,” Napoleon suggested gently. “Not really in the holiday spirit, after all.”
The deputy looked at Ivan, peered inside the car to look at Tom. “It’ll have to be us. It’s just me. This is a small town.”
“We noticed,” Illya said. The three of them carried the bodies into the tiny sheriff’s station across the street from the hotel, and the deputy went back outside and told the gawkers to go on about their business and that all the excitement was over with. Then he came in, looked at the agents, and said:
“That’s true, isn’t it? The excitement is all over with?”
“Yes,” Napoleon said.
“Now you want to sit down and tell me this long story?” He looked from Napoleon to Illya. The Russian sat down, crossed his arms, and stared at the wall, wrapped in the stubborn silence he had perfected over the years.
Napoleon sighed; but after all, it was his case and Illya was off duty. He eased his cold tired body into a chair and explained what he could. The deputy, increasingly dubious, finally put a call in to his chief, who called his chief, who contacted UNCLE. In less than 15 minutes all that could be cleared up was.
“These belong to you gents, then?” The deputy said, holding out their UNCLE Specials and communicators. “Picked them up at the diner. They were pretty shook up there, I can tell you.”
“Sorry,” Napoleon said. “It won’t happen again. At least, not because of us.”
“Us?” Illya echoed sourly. Napoleon didn’t correct himself. They took their gear, bade the deputy farewell and crossed the icy street to the hotel. The snow had stopped, but the heavy sky threatened more to come.
In the lobby Napoleon said, “I don’t suppose you want to call it in.”
“I’m on holiday,” Illya insisted, turning away and tiredly climbing the stairs.
Napoleon sighed and pulled out his communicator. He’d had easier Christmases.
Illya took a very hot, very long shower, dried off in front of the fire, and dressed. Then he sat down in front of the picture window that showed Aspen Creek’s gaily decorated main street, now coated with a decent layer of snow and glittering with Christmas lights and decorations. He didn’t even have time to start thinking black thoughts before a knock sounded at the door.
He opened it to see Napoleon, also freshly showered and changed, carrying a tray covered with a cloth.
“Santa’s here. I’d’ve come in the traditional way but some nut has a fire going.”
Illya forced a smile and stood aside. “Come in.” He shut the door behind Napoleon, then followed him to the table in front of the windows. Snow was falling again.
“Ho ho ho,” Napoleon said, pulling the cloth away to reveal mounds of sandwiches and a carafe filled with what looked like...
“Buttermilk?” Illya hazarded.
“Eggnog,” Napoleon said. “Spiked, of course.”
“Eggnog,” Illya scoffed, picking up a fat roast beef sandwich.
When they had devoured the sandwiches Napoleon poured two glasses of eggnog and got up, going to the couch in front of the fire. Illya followed his partner, accepting the glass and sitting on the arm of the couch.
“Now...” Napoleon began. “Where were we?”
Before Illya could think of what to say, Napoleon went on.
“Ah yes, I recall. I had asked you why you didn’t choose to trust me with the facts about your ... preferences.”
“Do I have to tell you everything?” Illya parried.
“No.” Napoleon paused, considering his words carefully. “But as your friend I believe I have the right to at least ask why you didn’t. Even if you choose to tell me it’s none of my damned business.”
Illya mulled that route. It would be the easiest short-term solution, but it would inevitably, perhaps fatally, damage the trust they had. It wasn’t worth it. It was time for the truth. He raised the glass of eggnog, then set it aside without tasting it.
Sensing the decision, Napoleon repeated, “Why?”
Illya’s eyes fell shut. “Because I knew I would lose you.”
“What?” Napoleon leaned forward, putting his glass aside.
Illya inhaled slowly. “Because I knew that once you knew the truth our partnership would be over.”
“Open your eyes, god damn it.” Napoleon shook his head. “What are you talking about? You think I would end our partnership because you’re bisexual? You think I’d give up what we have because of that?”
Illya looked at his partner, at the pain and anger in his face. “No. Because of the inevitable questions. And the inevitable answers. I won’t lie to you, Napoleon. I may remain silent—”
“That’s an understatement.”
“But I will not lie to you. Now.” Illya’s tone became tired, resigned. “Do you not have questions for me?”
He knew Napoleon wasn’t stupid; he knew his partner knew him well. Napoleon didn’t disappoint. Illya could almost see the pieces come together in his eyes.
The American said, “Illya ... you’re not ... in love with me?”
Illya turned his face away, a clear answer.
Napoleon stared at him, stunned. “You are good. Jesus. I never had the slightest idea.”
“You are no longer safely ignorant,” Illya said.
“And you never said anything before because you were afraid I’d be offended. That I’d be angry and disgusted and ...” Napoleon waited, and at last Illya turned back to face him. “And — what?” Napoleon went on. “That I would ask for a new partner? That I’d want you fired? That I’d shoot you myself?” He shook his head again, eyes raised incredulous to the sky. “What the hell do you think of me?”
Illya said nothing. Napoleon took a few calming breaths. He had never imagined having this conversation with his partner; he hardly knew what he was saying, what he was feeling.
“As you said before, we’ve slept in the same bed. You never tried anything.”
Napoleon pressed gently, “Was it difficult for you?”
A sarcastic snort of laughter was his answer.
“I’m sorry. You know I would never deliberately hurt you.” Napoleon reached out, took hold of his partner’s arm, pulling gently so Illya would face him fully again. “You should have done something. You might have been surprised.” He heard his own words with astonishment, and knew he would never have said them before that night in the surveillance room.
Illya met his gaze, still arctic, and drew his arm away. “That you would be willing to engage in sexual experimentation? That would not surprise me. Do you know nothing about love, Napoleon?” He got up, but Napoleon caught him again, by the wrist, rising from the couch along with him.
“Oh no you don’t. You can’t bullshit me. You couldn’t possibly love me if you thought I was that heartless. You wouldn’t lower yourself. Were you never going to tell me?”
Illya shrugged, not coincidentally freeing himself from his partner’s hold. “Never is a long time. I did not — do not — want to lose what we have.”
“Which is?” Napoleon urged.
“An excellent partnership,” Illya said. Napoleon’s expression twisted into sarcasm.
“And an excellent friendship,” the Russian admitted.
“So excellent you were afraid to tell me what was in your heart,” Napoleon said. “I hear more intimate details from my tailor.” He advanced, and Illya retreated until he bumped into the wall beside the fireplace.
“Tell me the truth,” Napoleon said. He stopped a foot from his partner, not touching Illya except with his presence and his eyes. “You never said anything because you were afraid. Afraid that, once you told me, I would reject you. And it would be done with.”
Illya met his eyes, stubborn, angry.
“Illya.” Napoleon raised his hand, touched his fingertips to his partner’s jaw. “You don’t have to live on hope, or on fantasy. You don’t have to go to others, to strangers, to ... to half-satisfy your needs.”
Illya drew away, sideways, and Napoleon let his hand drop, backing off.
“Is this pity?” Illya said, anger coiled behind his voice.
Napoleon said, “Did you hear me say that I love you?”
“But you don’t believe me.”
Napoleon waited; feeling his building ire, knowing he’d wait until he heard the truth, Illya finally forced out the words:
“I believe you.”
“Good. Now let me tell you something else. Something I didn’t realize until recently. Until I knew about you and Damien.”
Illya’s jaw tightened. He turned away, facing the windows. “If you spy on me when I’m not working, you deserve what you get.”
“What I got was an orgasm in my pants like a goddamned teenager, and an urge to kill Waverly’s favorite little courier,” Napoleon said. He saw the shift in Illya’s stance that revealed his surprise. “I listened to you. To you and him.”
“You must have enjoyed it,” Illya mocked.
“No. I thought ... no, I didn’t think. Not at all. I felt.” His hands clenched. “I felt hot. Horny. Angry. I felt the urge to do murder. Then I had a coherent thought. Only one.” Illya still wouldn’t look at him. “Do you want to know what it was?”
Napoleon shook his head, dropping his gaze to his knotted hands. “I thought ... ‘he’s mine.’“ He remembered it clearly, the murderous anger, the realization of what it meant. He’d spent that night unsleeping, almost unblinking, wrestling with the astonishing stranger in his head. He still wasn’t sure if he’d lost or won.
“You are mine,” he went on. “Not my partner. Not my friend. Mine.”
Then he laughed, a rough sound of wonder. “I know it makes no sense. I know I never said it before. I didn’t even know it until that night.” Finally he looked up. Illya turned to him, and he breathed in the sight of sky-blue eyes, agape, marveling. “But I know it now. You belong to me.”
Silence. Napoleon smiled tentatively. “You don’t have anything to say to me? After that outrageous assertion?”
Illya’s body shifted toward him, tension easing from his muscles. “What outrageous assertion?”
Napoleon took the single step that brought him within inches of Illya. He felt the Russian’s abrupt intake of breath, felt the air between them crackle. He raised his hands, framing his partner, not touching him but feeling him, inhaling his familiar scent, now dizzying as hashish. He didn’t know what to do with this new exquisite awareness. He didn’t know how to approach Illya as a lover; he only knew he wanted to.
“I could see everything,” he said softly, his eyes locked on Illya’s. “I mean, in my mind. I could see you undressing in front of him. I could see you standing naked in that room. I could see you touching him. Him touching you.” Napoleon again shook his head, amazed at himself, at the memory; even now it made his blood heat. “I was furious. Sometimes it takes a kick in the head to make you see clearly.”
“You’ve always hated sharing your things,” Illya said. Napoleon didn’t rise to the jibe, instead scowling as he sorted his own thoughts.
“It’s not that I think I own you,” he said. “I’m not quite that deranged. I think.” He moved a fraction nearer, just touching, feeling their warmth blend. “Damn it,” he breathed in Illya’s ear. “I was so goddamned jealous. I ...” He stroked his cheek along his partner’s smooth jaw, feeling Illya’s body vibrate with desire. “I wanted you,” he whispered. “I never knew, until I heard you. I wanted to kill him for touching you. For ... for making you feel ... for doing what I couldn’t do.” Illya’s hands slid up his arms, seized his shoulders, his fingers digging in. “I wanted to kill him because you wanted him. It should have been me, there, with you—”
“Stop,” Illya said, his voice unsteady. “Stop it.” He stroked his mouth across Napoleon’s, quick, rough, then brought it back again to fasten it against his partner’s lips.
Illya’s mouth, his taste, soft, warm, familiar-strange, shattered coherent thought. Napoleon leaned into the kiss, fire tingling upward from his toes, surging through his bloodstream as their bodies molded seamlessly together.
Illya’s tongue touched Napoleon’s lips, slipped between, stroking, waking nerves Napoleon never knew he had, setting his brain whirling and his cock pulsing.
When Illya finally drew back, less than a hand’s breadth, Napoleon let his forehead drop onto the Russian’s shoulder and admitted, “I can’t breathe.”
They chuckled together — then Illya’s voice burned in his ear:
“I want to make love to you.”
Napoleon lifted his spinning head; Illya pushed him back, just a little, to see his reaction. Napoleon lay his hands on his partner’s chest, nodded.
“Yes.” His fingers tightened in Illya’s sweater. “Yes.” He shifted closer, touched his lips to Illya’s, at first tentative, then drawn in by the feel, the flavor, the Russian’s soft sound of pleasure. He let go of the sweater, sliding his hands around and underneath the soft cotton to stroke the hard muscles of his partner’s back — then found himself pulled tight as Illya took over the kiss, his tongue teasing deep. Illya released his shoulders to curl his hands around Napoleon’s backside, pressing their hips hard together, moving in a slow circling rhythm.
Illya left his mouth — Napoleon sucked in much-needed air — and began to explore his chin and neck with kisses. When the soft lips stopped to suck at the hammering pulse in his neck, Napoleon groaned and set unsteady fingers to his own shirt buttons.
“No.” Illya caught his hands, pulled them down, drawing back to look at him.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” the Russian said, eyes burning into Napoleon’s. “I want to ...”
Napoleon smiled, let his arms drop. “Then go ahead.” He felt himself shaking inside as Illya unbuttoned his shirt, pushing it off his shoulders. With a hint of a smile the Russian then let his hands trace collarbones, sternum, pectorals. He tickled lightly over both nipples and Napoleon shuddered.
Illya then laid his warm hands flat against Napoleon’s diaphragm. Napoleon saw them rise and fall with his own accelerated breathing. Then Illya leaned in to taste the skin his hands had explored, and Napoleon forgot to breathe.
Illya moved his mouth to a nipple and Napoleon felt his knees soften. Jesus. No woman had ever done this to him; he’d never even thought of his nipples as erogenous zones, but Illya’s teasing tongue sent electric jolts straight through him. Clutching at his partner’s shoulders, he heard himself moan, felt Illya’s hands around his waist, steadying him as his tongue moved slowly down, across taut stomach muscles to his navel.
“Illya...” Napoleon exhaled the word, barely able to speak. The Russian straightened in front of him, face intent, eyes hungry. He seemed to divine Napoleon’s plight without need for explanation. He drew him close, holding him, and Napoleon leaned against him, trying to pull some oxygen into his starved lungs, feeling them both shaking with need.
“Are you all right?” Illya said in his ear. Napoleon inhaled deeply, grasped the bottom of his partner’s sweater, and pulled it over his head, tossing it onto the couch. He wrapped himself around Illya again, skin to skin.
“Better,” he murmured, and felt his partner’s laugh against his chest.
“Adezhda,” Illya said. “Slishkam mnoga.”
“Clothes. Too much,” the Russian explained, undoing Napoleon’s button, drawing the zipper down over his hard cock. Pants and underwear were shoved out of the way. Napoleon stepped out of them and watched Illya remove his jeans. The sight — the very fact that he stood here, naked, watching his partner strip, blazing eyes fastened on Napoleon’s — was incredible, painfully erotic.
Illya dropped his jeans and moved to Napoleon, pressed full length against him, every warm, hard inch startling and intense on Napoleon’s skin. He covered Napoleon’s soft sounds of pleasure with his mouth, sampling them with his tongue.
“Spal’nya,” Illya ordered. That word Napoleon knew. He walked like a drunk into the adjacent bedroom, feeling the tingle of his partner’s eyes on him as Illya followed.
Napoleon stopped at the foot of the bed and turned to watch Illya advance on him, lithe and focused as a panther.
Illya seized his shoulders and eased him onto the bed. He knelt before him, between his knees, one hand warm on each thigh, his breath warm on Napoleon’s stomach. Then Illya hesitated, looking up.
Napoleon laughed, a short puff of air, and admitted, “I’m nervous.”
Illya met his eyes soberly for one long moment. Finally he said, “I’ve never heard you say that before.”
Napoleon shrugged. “It’s been a long time since I had sex with...”
“A man?” Illya asked.
“I’ve never had sex with a man,” Napoleon said, amazed he could say that so calmly when his body and brain were a whirlwind of sensation. “I was going to say with someone I love.” Every heart beat, every second of seeing his partner naked between his knees, seemed to make him harder, tighter.
“I won’t hurt you,” Illya said, his voice molten gold, and Napoleon closed his eyes as even the sound stroked his arousal.
“I know you won’t,” he whispered. “God.” He opened his eyes, slid his hands around Illya’s head, twining his fingers through the long hair. “Come here.” He pulled and Illya came to him, bearing him backward against the cool bedspread. He thought he would explode as Illya’s weight pressed hot against his aching groin. Then the pressure was gone and his cock sprang up into the cool air. Illya lifted himself up and Napoleon watched as the Russian descended, kissing his stomach, licking his navel, nuzzling the coarse hairs below.
Napoleon groaned and lay back, his body limp and achingly aroused simultaneously.
“Illya...” The word was a plea, a plea the Russian heard and responded to.
Napoleon started as Illya’s mouth, hot and moist, embraced the head of his erection. He shuddered as Illya licked along his taut shaft, heard without shame his own whimpers when his partner engulfed him in a tight embrace. Napoleon clutched at the bedspread, at Illya’s arms, his shoulders — at empty air. He rocked his hips, unable to think, only feeling the firm sucking pressure of Illya’s mouth around him. Illya grasped his thighs, holding him down as he made love to Napoleon’s erection, working him into an incoherent frenzy of need.
And Illya stopped. Napoleon lay blinking, panting, his body stiff, his cock tight, oozing, ready. Illya eased one hand under him, cradling his testes, massaging them, sliding past to slip between his cheeks and stroke the sensitive flesh. Napoleon cried out and thrust upward, fire spearing his body, and Illya caught him again in his mouth, sucking hard, drawing an explosive orgasm from him, leaving him shuddering, gasping.
Napoleon collapsed, trembling now with the weakness of complete release, and Illya slithered up beside him.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly. Napoleon groaned and grabbed him, pulling him close, burying his sweat-damp face in his partner’s neck.
“Wow,” he explained. Illya chuckled.
Napoleon caught his breath, feeling Illya’s hands touching him, exploring with leisurely pleasure.
Napoleon smiled. It felt good — damn good — to know Illya enjoyed touching him.
Then his partner coiled his fingers around his gluteal muscles, pulling him closer.
Hesitant, though not afraid, Napoleon said, “Do you want to ..?” He hadn’t thought Illya would want to penetrate him, though the opposite had occurred to him as part of his rather vague preconceptions. He realized now that he’d made a lot of assumptions on little evidence.
Illya smiled at him, petting his back, his hip. “Da. Very much. But not tonight. It is too soon for you, and we aren’t prepared.”
Relieved, Napoleon sat up, said playfully, “Well, something must be done about this situation.” He stroked his hand down Illya’s stomach, feeling the muscles tighten and tremble, and let his palm rest above his partner’s erection. He glanced at Illya’s face, saw the desire and doubt mingled there.
“Napoleon, I know you have never done ... any of this—”
Napoleon shook his head, firmly. “You also know how I love a challenge.” He sat up, considering, grinning inside at the look on Illya’s face. “Come here,” he said, pulling his partner up onto his feet, steadying him. Illya rested his hands on Napoleon’s shoulders, looking down at him, glowing with arousal. Napoleon looked him over, shaking his head. Gorgeous. What the hell had taken him so long?
He curled his hands around Illya’s hips, easing him closer. Illya’s hard cock was in front of his face now; the Russian’s hands clenched on his shoulders.
“Napoleon...” The word was tight, strangled with need.
Napoleon took Illya’s cock in his mouth. Velvet soft skin over hot hardness; the feeling was strange but good. Illya choked out something, something in Russian, a word Napoleon didn’t know. He eased his mouth down, as far as he could go, until the head of Illya’s cock was against the back of his throat. He pressed upward with his tongue, moving it back and forth, and Illya shuddered. Napoleon backed away, looked up at his partner. Illya’s eyes were squeezed shut. The expression on his face ... ecstatic.
Napoleon engulfed his partner’s erection again, moving firm and hard now, back and forth, hearing Illya’s grunts, feeling his fingers dig into the muscles of his shoulders. He knew what he liked when he was this close, and he lavished it on his partner, alternating hard suction with fast tonguing against the head of Illya’s cock. Illya’s hips thrust forward suddenly; Napoleon let him pump into his mouth, holding his hips to keep them both balanced, ready for a mouthful of ejaculate at any moment.
Illya cried out, a sound Napoleon had never heard his partner make, an uncontrolled sound that made even Napoleon’s testicles tighten in excitement as Illya clasped his head and spilled hot into his mouth.
He sucked and swallowed, still holding Illya’s hips. When there was no more, Illya’s body went limp between his hands and Napoleon caught him, employing one of his small stock of Russian words.
Illya slid down into his embrace, chest heaving. “Da,” he panted, nodding, beads of sweat trickling over his closed eyes. “Da.” His arms circled Napoleon’s head, holding it against his chest, against his racing heart. Napoleon kissed his partner’s chest, tightened his arms around Illya’s waist and lay them back on the bed, waiting in silence until Illya’s breathing and heartbeat slowed.
“I didn’t realize you resorted to your native tongue at ...” Napoleon smiled. “At such times.” He thought, but didn’t say, that he had heard no Russian during his partner’s liaison with Damien.
“Because I am ... at home with you,” Illya said, shifting some of his weight off his partner but still touching him. One hand lay on Napoleon’s chest, tracing idle patterns.
Napoleon decided that he might as well say it now as later. It would bother him until he had.
“You seemed reasonably at home with Damien.” He kept his tone as light as possible, knowing he wasn’t likely to fool his partner, but hoping Illya would take his tone in the spirit intended and understand he was simply asking, not accusing.
Luckily Illya chose not to take offense. “No. No. That was about ... about release. Nothing more.”
“But ... you let him ...” Napoleon stopped, not having the words to state it other than crudely. “Didn’t he..?”
Comprehension lightened Illya’s puzzled scowl. “No. You ... misunderstood. I don’t love Damien, I don’t trust him. I would never share myself so much with him. With me, that is an intimacy that must be earned.”
“What about me?” Napoleon didn’t even really know what he was asking. Reassurance? A stroke for his ego? When was the last time you begged for that?
Illya raised himself on one elbow, smiling faintly, as if he realized what Napoleon was really asking and even how foolish it made him feel.
“Anything you might ask you can have,” he said. “As you should know.”
Napoleon shook his head. “Sorry. I’m an idiot. And it’s getting cold.”
They rolled to either side, lifted the blankets and slid between the sheets. Immediately Illya moved against Napoleon again; the American found himself grinning as he wrapped his arms around his partner. Grinning like an idiot.
You are an idiot. But you’re a happy idiot.
Napoleon opened his eyes and sat up, staring blank and bleary at the snow falling heavily in the night sky outside the window. He blinked, glanced at Illya, lying on his side, facing him, blankets up to his shoulder.
“I have a question.”
Napoleon groaned, falling back against the pillow, eyes squeezed shut. “I knew it.”
“Something’s wrong. It never takes you long, does it?”
Illya rolled his eyes. “I just have a question, Napoleon, not existential agonies.”
Napoleon opened one eye. “Go ahead.”
“You knew Damien was monitored?”
“Why didn’t I know?”
“That’s the way Mr. Waverly wanted it.”
“But Mark knew.”
“Oh.” Napoleon sat up, grimaced. “Well, he didn’t know. He found out that night. I was a little ... I blurted it out.”
Levelly Illya said, “That was a trifle unprofessional, wasn’t it?”
Napoleon looked at him, the unspoken words clear in his eyes. “I was feeling a trifle unprofessional. So shoot me.”
Illya’s mouth twitched. “Maybe later. Why is Damien monitored?”
“Well, I looked into that. It wasn’t easy, either. But I have my ways—”
“Spare me. Just answer the question.”
“He’s Mr. Waverly’s ... what do they call them in France? Natural son.”
Illya sat bolt upright. “I had sex with my boss’ bastard?”
Napoleon said, “I’m willing to forget it ever happened if you are. And if it never happens again. Not with him, not with anyone else.”
Illya stared. “You are serious, aren’t you?”
Napoleon didn’t smile. “I learned a lot about myself that night in monitoring. More about myself than about you, I think. I won’t share you.” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t like that about myself, but there it is.”
“I’m not referring to that,” Napoleon cut in. “I know we’re sometimes required to ... serve in that way. I’m talking about the rest of the time. All the rest of the time.”
“I didn’t know you were a jealous lover,” Illya said, speculative, as if this changed things.
“I didn’t know it either,” Napoleon admitted. “I don’t think I was. But ... this is different.” He looked up, eyes locking onto his partner’s. “This is different.”
Illya drew up his knees, wrapped his arms around them, resting his chin there. “For a man who had never given this even a passing thought three days ago, you certainly have stringent demands.”
Napoleon held his breath for a moment, then released it, slowly, forcing himself to at least sound reasonable. Everything Illya’d said was true; who the hell did he think he was?
“I know. That is, they aren’t demands. I’m not making any demands. I’m ... stating my case. Irrational though it may be. I can’t justify it; I can’t even explain it. But I know the truth when I feel it. This isn’t a fluke, or something temporary. We’ve changed.”
“We?” Illya challenged softly.
Napoleon said, “If I change, you change. And vice versa. It’s been that way for years.” He reached out, ran his fingertips through the blond strands behind Illya’s ear, simply because he wished to. It felt strange, euphoric. “I’d apologize if I thought it would help, but this is all a surprise to me. I just want you to know what you’re getting into. If you still want to, that is. Besides,” he added, trying to lighten his tone, “if you love me, it should be easy, right?”
Illya snorted. “There has never been anything easy about loving you.”
Napoleon laughed, heartened by Illya’s words. “You’re no walk in the park yourself, tovarish.” He tugged a lock of soft hair, trailed his fingers down his partner’s neck and shoulder, along his arm. Illya shivered, obviously fighting a smile, and Napoleon let his hand drop. “If I do my damnedest to ... ah ... make up for that, will you try to tolerate my unreasonable demands?”
Illya rubbed his stubbled chin, speculative. “Well, if I unwrap a Christmas present and it’s more than I bargained for ...”
“You can return it,” Napoleon said, very mildly. “No questions asked.”
“And if I don’t?”
Napoleon reached out, turned his partner’s head toward him. “Then it’s forever. You don’t get another chance. Fair warning.”
“Forever? Another unreasonable demand?” Illya asked, but his eyes spoke the word “yes.”
Napoleon shrugged. “It doesn’t feel unreasonable. It feels...” ... inevitable.
“Inevitable?” Illya hazarded.
Napoleon grinned, grabbed his partner and pulled him down onto his chest. “Smart-ass Russian. You probably bite, too.”
“You don’t get to be the only unreasonable one in this partnership,” Illya said, baring his teeth and slowly fastening them on Napoleon’s shoulder.
“Ow!” Napoleon seized his partner’s head, pulled him up, laughing to see Illya’s eyes flash with mirth. “Careful. If you damage me, you can’t return me.”
The amusement faded from Illya’s face. He held his partner’s gaze. “I have no intention of returning you, damaged or not.” He bent to kiss Napoleon, slowly, intent, savoring him and laying claim to him at the same time. When he rose again, Napoleon smiled slowly.
“Well. Merry Christmas to me, then.” He chuckled. “And to you.” He circled the Russian’s shoulders with his arms, pulling him down.
“Merry Christmas, Napoleon.”