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Fear of Flying

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Fear of Flying

In the midst of the noise and the music and the chatter all picking up in volume as midnight neared, Napoleon felt a hand on his arm. Illya had come up behind him, and was now tilting his head towards the door. Napoleon excused himself and followed. The Rainbow Room lobby was almost empty, tonight's revelers were crowding inside, waiting for the countdown and the singing of Auld Lang Syne. Illya stopped in front of the observation deck elevator, locked and off limits and inserted a key. Napoleon raised his eyebrows. "Where did you.."

Illya put his finger to his lips and shook his head. They could hear the cables come to life as the car rose from somewhere beneath them. He pulled Napoleon into the elevator when it arrrived, and pushed the button for 67, two floors above. When they got out he used a lockpick to work on the metal gate to the shallow stairs that led to the observation deck at the top of the building.

"I see you've maintained your skills," Napoleon said.

"I hear it's like riding a bicycle; come on, don't dally, it's almost midnight." Illya opened the gate and tugged Napoleon up by the hand.

❖ ❖ ❖

New York,
June 30, 1975

Alexander Waverly signed the document with a flourish of his fountain pen, then used a blotter to dry the ink, an affectation he retained from his youth. He looked at it a moment, then pushed it aside. It was done. He would officially step down from the Directorship of UNCLE at the end of the year. He felt satisfaction and a trace of relief; it was time, and he had, in the end, been able to ensure a large part of his succession. Solo had lived up to his promise in the last four years, both as head of UNCLE Los Angeles, and for the past year in Hong Kong. He initialed the transfer order next, it was time to bring Mr. Solo back to New York. There was only one more thing left to do, and that, he already knew, would require time, effort and a certain amount of luck to bring about. Solo's Luck, he thought sardonically.

❖ ❖ ❖

December 8, 1975

He had not been to the Navy Ministry since the first week of his return to Moscow; his debriefing and subsequent assignment were at the Aquarium where it was easier to keep an eye on old spies as they faded away he thought with a mental shrug. The summons were, while not quite unexpected, far enough removed from his daily life to make him wonder. He'd pulled out his old uniform for the occasion, and made sure he'd attached the bars that signalled his rank. He'd never bothered to order a new one, the few times a year he needed it didn't matter enough to him, he was relieved he wasn't required to wear it on a daily basis.

Napoleon would be appalled at the state of his wardrobe he thought, as he closed the door of the armoire. He had packed up Anna Kuryakina's things and given them away, there was more than enough room for his three suits and week's worth of white shirts; they sufficed, and there was no one nagging him to do better. Napoleon hadn't exactly nagged; he'd teased, he'd suggested, sometimes he'd dragged him along on shopping excursions. And Illya had played along, dutifully looking at the beautiful tweeds and Italian silks and then buying another black tie just to see Napoleon's outraged expression. He smiled at the memory as he waited outside Admiral Mikhail Lermontov's office, then tucked the smile away when he realized the Admiral's secretary was returning it.

Lermontov was writing at his desk when he was shown into the office, but put his pen down to acknowledge Illya's salute. "It's good to see you again Captain  Kuryakin," he said when the secretary had closed the door behind her. "Please sit down." He had dismissed his aide and they were alone. Illya sat down opposite him, carefully holding his hat on his knee. Lermontov was studying him silently, his eyes opaque; Illya wondered what he saw.

"Comrade Suslov tells me he is pleased with the quality of your work."

Illya inclined his head, knowing what was coming next.

"He is not as pleased with your attitude. Arrogant he calls it."

"I am sorry, sir." Illya said, sounding not very sorry at all.

"Of course." For a moment there was a glint in the Admiral's eye that reminded Illya of Alexander Waverly. He pushed the thought away, this was not New York, and it was dangerous to lose sight of that fact.

"I'm aware your position does not take full advantage of your capabilities, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances..." Lermontov trailed off. He swiveled his chair to look out the window at the wintry and gray December day and sighed. "I met your mother in 1948," he said, "she was beautiful then and she grew more beautiful as the years passed." He remained lost in thought for a minute before he turned back to his desk and clasped his hands on top. "I helped the only way I could; she never wanted you to join the Navy."

"I have no regrets on that account, Sir."

"She never blamed me for it, even when it ended up taking you farther away than she ever dreamed."

Illya remained silent.

"She did not want me to bring you back either, two years ago."

Illya nodded. "She told me, but you were right to do so. "

"It was because I could not be with her. I did not want her to be ill and alone. By all rights I should have been with her." Lermontov's voice tightened on the last few words.

It was one of the few times Illya had seen a crack in the Admiral's facade. He leaned forward. "Mikhail Vassilievich, she understood," he said softly, wondering at the turn of the conversation.

"Yes." The older man's voice cracked. "Annushka  always understood. Perhaps if she hadn't been so understanding..." he shook his head, then cleared his throat. It was back to business. "I received a call from Alexander Waverly six month ago when he announced his retirement. He wanted you back."

Illya tried to dampen the sudden hammering of his heart; when he learned why Lermontov had had him recalled to Moscow, he had swallowed his disappointment and made what peace he could with the hand fate had dealt him. He could not afford to lose that hard won equanimity now.

"With his retirement, there is a restructuring of the Command. Intelligence Operations will report to a central Secretariat in New York. He wants you in charge of that operation."

Illya was stunned. "I..." he started to answer, then stopped. Of all the things he expected to hear today, this was the last. Of all the things he wanted to hear, this was the most unexpected. Of all the feelings that rushed through him now, the strongest was the fear that it might no longer matter. Lermontov was watching him, and he pulled himself together.

"I have managed to convince the Politbureau and Admiral Gorshkov that your presence in New York in such a visible position would be an... advantage to the Republic." The Admiral stopped and coughed. "I've done what I can, it's up to you now to convince them they can trust you. I believe you know what needs to be said."

"I am honored, sir, and thankful for the opportunity. I will not disappoint you." Illya managed to say.

"It is not me you will have to please one way or another," the Admiral said cynically. He rose from his chair and moved to the front of his desk as Illya also stood up. He held out his hand, and when Illya took it, he pulled him into an embrace. "I promised her, Illyusha," he spoke into Illya's ear. "She didn't ask me, but I promised her this." He held on for a long moment before he let go. "I am an old man, this is my last present to both of you." He shook his head. "You are too much like her."

He had survived the interviews that followed, the briefings, the paperwork, the not so lightly veiled threats; the appointment was not universally seen as an advantage. He had signed, on the very last day, the papers decommissioning him--not knowing if was a punishment, a reward, or just another chess move with an expendable pawn. He didn't care, it was a freedom he hadn't dared dream of. And he found himself at Sheremetyevo on the next to the last day of the year, no official escort, but two watchers hovering in the waiting room, letting him know just who this particular move had perturbed. He wondered what kind of favors the old man had had to pull in. Both old men. He had one suitcase holding no more than he'd carried on his first trip out of the country, and a briefcase with his orders, his papers, and a snapshot he'd found of his mother and the Admiral laughing into the sun during a stolen moment on the shore of the Black Sea.

❖ ❖ ❖

December 30, 1975

When the announcement came that the flight to New York was delayed by two hours, he convinced Mark there was no need for him to babysit that long. Mark had met the flight from Moscow, pounding Illya on the back and warming him with the obvious pleasure he took in seeing him again.

"We can sit in the Ambassador lounge," he said with a wink, "I know one of the hostesses."

"Only one?" Illya asked.

Mark laughed. He looked much the same, the hair was a little longer underneath a newer corduroy hat, but even Illya could tell that he was wearing a shirt and tie that had no business being introduced to each other.

They caught up over coffee, Illya carefully refraining from asking the one question he wanted to ask.

"I wasn't sure we'd ever see you again mate," Mark said. "It seemed like you were gone from one day to the next."

"It was completely unexpected." Illya played with his cup, not willing to say more.

Mark knew enough not to press. "Well, the old man is extremely pleased he managed to engineer your return before he's gone for good. But then you've always been one of his pet projects."

"It's hard to imagine he'll disappear that easily."

Mark shrugged. "He's old, Illya. It's become more apparent in the last year. And I hear Alma threatened to divorce him if this isn't a real retirement" he added with a grin.

"She would too, wouldn't she."

"He trusts Napoleon. As much as he'll trust anyone taking over for him. And with you back... we'll be fine. Listen, I'm supposed to give you these. This is unofficial by the way, you're not reinstated yet. Your very own communicator, and a brand new UNCLE passport. To make sure U.S. immigration doesn't decide to lock you up and throw away the key. We think you're still persona non grata with the CIA."

"Plus ça change I see."

"Gone but not forgotten, mate."

They parted with a handshake, and Mark's promise to see him again in New York in two weeks when he was flying in to help vet new recruits.

The first time Illya flew to New York he left from Tempelhof, Beldon's bellowed good wishes still ringing in his ears; nervous, excited and filled with hope, knowing that his future lay in front of him.

He was, he admitted to himself, more nervous now than he had been on his first trip to New York. His hopes had long been brought to earth, and this time his future... He left the lounge and wandered restlessly past the duty-free shops, the fake pubs and the fast food cafes that made all Western airports look the same now. He laughed at himself, old enough to remember the days of the Oceanic Terminal and rooftop cafes.

After he'd reached Moscow and understood why Lermontov had called him back, he had sent a message to Waverly letting him know. It was the only message he sent. What could he possibly have said to Napoleon? Things were what they were, there was nothing he could change.

He stood irresolute in front of the airport pub. A glass of stout, or better yet vodka, would ease the wait. His fingers twitched and he switched the old leather briefcase to his left hand and stuffed the right into the pocket of his trenchcoat. Not now, he had promised himself. Not until he knew what was waiting for him at the end of this journey.

❖ ❖ ❖

New York
December 30, 1975

Napoleon had come in early, he wanted to clear his desk before the long New Year's weekend that he consciously refused to formulate any hopes for. He started to go through his mail. The flight had been delayed and had only left London an hour ago. Mark Slate had caught him at home and given him the news.

"You can kill the fatted calf Napoleon, the flight took off and Illya's on it."

"Did you remember to give him the passport and the communicator? There were no signs of any problems?"

Mark snorted. "Of course I handed them over. Don't fuss, he can take care of himself. I saw him and he looked fine. Two arms, two legs, a nose, all parts still attached."

"I never get to fuss anymore," Napoleon groused, "I only get to delegate." Mark was still chuckling when he hung up.

Napoleon looked up when Wanda knocked lightly before coming in.

"Communications says the flight's in the air and due to arrive at 3:00," she handed him a note.

He must be completely transparent to his staff, he thought. Wanda wouldn't normally bring him each piece of information that came upstairs. He could see she was planning to keep an eye on him today. But then she had known him since he was Chief Enforcement Officer, and she had known Illya as well.

"Thank you Wanda," he managed to say calmly and tucked the note in with his other papers.

There were no meetings scheduled today and when he checked with Communications thirty minutes later, there were no red pins on the big map, no situations requiring immediate attention. Maybe Thrush had expanded the Christmas truce to New Year's he thought wryly, maybe they too were celebrating Mr. Waverly's retirement this week.

Lisa Rogers was monitoring the board, though her new position as head of Communications wouldn't officially start until after the holiday. He had a feeling she'd had the same idea as Wanda; after a somewhat rocky start, she and Illya had become good friends.

"Did you get my note?" she asked him when she saw him enter the room.

Napoleon nodded.

"Nothing new since then, but I'll let you know as soon as we get an update."

Napoleon smiled his thanks and escaped back to his office. Everyone was so sure; he was the only one who wasn't. But then they didn't know what a mess he'd made of things.

❖ ❖ ❖

He'd been in Los Angeles when he got the phone call, a month before Illya would retire from Section 2 himself. Illya's voice was emotionless, he realized now that it must have been shock, but he was too angry, panicked, unbelieving to think of anything except his own feelings.

"Tell them you won't go."

Illya remained silent.

"Dammit Illya, I'm going to talk to Waverly. Refuse to go until we can come up with something to keep you here."

"Mr. Waverly and I have talked Napoleon. I'm an officer of the Soviet Navy, I can't refuse a direct order."

"You can always defect." Napoleon said carelessly, cruelly. He knew as well as Illya it was no option at all.

"Napoleon." Illya said, his voice tired.

"Well if you refuse to help yourself..." Napoleon hung up the phone, hating himself for what he'd said. But how could he offer comfort when his own world had just slipped from his hands.

He'd called Waverly to no effect, just an unusually acerbic lecture on the responsibilities that went along with Section One. He was angry with Waverly, angry with the Soviets, angry with Illya and finally angry with himself. It took him a week to accept the inevitable, to talk to Illya, to ask him to be patient and they would find a way. But when he called New York, he found to his horror, that Illya was already gone.

He'd retreated into an icy fury then, cold enough to scour all thought of what else he might have been feeling from his soul. But soon enough it collapsed as it had to, all he had left was his work; the transfer to Hong Kong was a godsend. Even if he could have reached Illya, what could he possibly have changed?

❖ ❖ ❖

When the plane was finally ready for boarding, Illya waited until the last moment, habit making him watch the line of passengers going in, watching, cataloguing, making sure there was nothing that felt awry. The big jet was going to be far from full, and it looked like a normal combination of weary travellers going home, bored businessmen, and excited vacationers. He took his window seat and noted with relief that he'd have the row to himself.

When the plane took off, he had his glasses on and a paperback on his lap. It was the last leg of his trip; he could finally exhale and let himself believe that the last three weeks were not a figment of his imagination.

In spite of his best efforts to read, his mind raced ahead. Mark had welcomed him back, UNCLE had wanted him back, but he still wasn't sure of his welcome in the only place that mattered.

When he'd made that last phone call to Napoleon in Los Angeles, there was already a fissure between them, one they'd never acknowledged and never wholly repaired. How could they repair it, when the damage done was to feelings they'd never expressed.

❖ ❖ ❖

Two months after Napoleon retired from the field, he'd invited Illya to dinner at Pearls. It was one of his favorite restaurants now, sleek and modern, on 48th Street. Illya suspected that the way the sophisticated setting showed his ex-partner off in his Italian suits attracted him as much as the food. The two of them usually dined much more casually, but this time Illya did the invitation justice and changed into the blue-gray silk suit he kept in reserve for more formal occasions.

"A special occasion?" Illya asked after the waiter brought their drinks.

"You could say that." Napoleon was grinning. "To the future."

Illya raised his glass and wondered what Napoleon was up to.

Napoleon was particularly charming through the appetizer course of dim sum, making Illya even more suspicious. He kept Illya laughing as they ate their way through the lemon chicken; but while they were waiting for the soup he became serious. He turned to Illya.

"I talked to Waverly today. He says I'll get Los Angeles."

Illya stared at him, his teacup lifted halfway to his mouth. He put it down carefully. Los Angeles was the perfect spot for Napoleon, a large enough Bureau to give him the administrative seasoning he needed, close enough to retain Waverly's personal mentorship. He'd known the day was coming, he wondered how he managed not to think about what it meant. "Congratulations, " he finally said.

"Illya," Napoleon bent towards him, eyes alight. "It's perfect. I'll settle in for a couple of months, and then you can apply for your transfer."

Illya blinked at him. "My transfer?"

"You won't just be Enforcement there, you'll be my top advisor..."


"Well yes, unoffically; but we'll be able try out some of the changes we've talked about."

Yes they'd talked. Sometimes, over a leisurely dinner, or on a long plane flight, their conversation would turn to the vagaries of old men and the innovations that would keep UNCLE modern. But it was talk of the future, when they were both Section One, a fantasy Illya permitted himself sometimes, recognizing its impossibility in a way Napoleon never did.

"Napoleon," he said stunned. "I can't do that."

He watched Napoleon's expression change from pleasure to confusion. "You what?"

"I'm New York's CEA now." He didn't know how else to explain himself.

"Waverly can find someone else, I need you with me." Napoleon put a confident hand on his arm.

"I can't follow you around from posting to posting like a shadow. Waverly gave me this chance to prove myself."

"It's not a question of following, you've proven yourself a hundred times over. We're a team. We've always been a team." Napoleon's confusion had deepened to bewilderment.

"New York matters to me. Mr. Waverly's trust matters to me, my duty matters to me. "

"Your duty?" Napoleon was becoming indignant. " Illya Kuryakin, the good little Soviet soldier?"

"My duty means as much to me as your ambition means to you," Illya answered, angry now too.

❖ ❖ ❖

At 11:30 AM Wanda came back in to see him. "What time do you want me to have the car ready downstairs?" she asked.

"I'm taking my own car," Napoleon said, "I can pick it up from the garage."

"Are you sure you want to drive, the Van Wyck is bound to be a mess."

"I'll be fine," he told her, trying not to show the tension he was starting to feel.

He waited till she left, then wandered out of his inner office into the big room with the circular table. How often they'd sat here, briefings, de-briefings, success and failure. It was the only room inside UNCLE that had windows, and he stared out of them now as the rain that had threatened since morning left trails of water on the glass.

Even after knowing Illya as long as he did there were times, like the evening at Pearls, when he was struck by how unreachable he could be. He'd started out talking too much, he was unaccountably nervous, he knew it, though he was sure he had no reason to be. He started that night convinced they both wanted the same thing. And when the evening ended, Illya was farther from him than he had ever been.

They'd gotten over it, their feelings and the desire didn't fade after all, those had covered up the worst of the fault. They saw each other as often as possible after his transfer, if not often enough. But the fault remained, one more thing added to all the things they never talked about. And they might have survived. Given time and Illya's retirement from the field, they might have survived. If the Russians hadn't stepped in.

❖ ❖ ❖

He'd bought the paperback at Heathrow, a lurid mystery that should have held his attention. But the book was not to be read today. Illya got up to stretch, then went to the galley to ask for some tea. He heard the sounds of a party starting in the jet's upstairs lounge. He'd almost forgotten that tomorrow was New Year's Eve and when he got back to his seat, he stared sightlessly out the window thinking of other New Years, in Hong Kong, in Beirut, on the Adriatic Express.

He drank the lukewarm tea and wished he could sleep and not think.

But think he did, of a night in Marrakesh and leaps of faith; of himself and Napoleon and sailing in uncharted seas. Why did he say yes that night instead of another? Because it was hot and the liquor hadn't taken the edge off the wanting, and the stewardess was downstairs and he knew it would be a mistake to go. He had no regrets for that night, neither then nor now. He pulled the window shade down. Nothing was more useless than staring at your own reflection. Napoleon had played to win, he knew, but then so had he. For a while, they both got what they wanted. Maybe if they had talked more; but that was a useless thought, talking had never been their way.

The movie should start soon. He turned off the overhead light and tilted his seat all the way back. Let it go, he told himself. You've already had more than you ever expected to find the day you first left Russia. A place for yourself, companionship, friendship, more. Few people ever have that much; nothing lasts forever.

❖ ❖ ❖

     Napoleon couldn't shake his restlessness, but another trip to Communications was out of the question. He tried to read the reports piled in his in-basket, but it was impossible to concentrate. He took a cigarette out of the pack on his desk, and patted his jacket to find his lighter, then sat with the unlit cigarette in his hand while his mind skittered, unbidden, back to the past.

"Come with me, we'll stop for the lovely Barbara and make an evening of it."

He'd found Illya and his stewardess in Fort Seblon, and now that they were back in Marrakesh he was determined to find the lovely Aisha and finish what he'd started.

Illya was uninterested. "I'm sunburned, my feet are still sore, I have a headache, it's too hot, and the lovely Barbara is getting married."

"I saw her look at you. Everyone should get one last fling before being shackled for life."

"Maybe, but twice and you're cheating. She would regret it."

Napoleon raised his eyebrows.

"The desert is cold at night," Illya said with a half smile.

He'd laughed then and left Illya to the bed, the hot room and the bottle of gin the hotel bar had provided in lieu of the vodka he'd called for.

When he came back three hours later, the ceiling fan with its desultory whirr was barely moving the heavy air and Illya had turned out the lights. The room was illuminated only by the glow coming through the open balcony doors. Just enough light to see that Illya had stripped to his briefs and was half sitting, half lying against the headboard, not much different from the position Napoleon had left him in earlier.

"The search for the lovely Aisha was unsuccessful I take it," Illya's amused voice greeted him out of the darkness.

"It was, but the lovely Barbara is in the bar downstairs. She asked after you." Napoleon removed his jacket and threw it on the chair before sitting down on the side of the bed.

"What did you tell her?" Illya asked.

Napoleon loosened his tie. He looked at Illya, his skin glistening with a light sheen of sweat in the faint light, hair brushed off his forehead, sprawling loose limbed, carelessly innocent on the bed. He trailed his fingers lightly down the inside of Illya's arm. "I told her I had first dibs." He noted the faint catch in Illya's breath. He moved his hand and placed it on Illya's chest. "Are you drunk?" he asked.

"A little." Illya said, his voice roughening.

Napoleon moved his hand lower slowly, listening to Illya's breathing shorten, feeling the tremor moving through his body. "Do you want to?" he said.

He saw Illya's head turn toward him, and the furrow between his brows as he considered the question. Napoleon's hand moved even lower, and then Illya smiled at him, and his smile wasn't innocent at all.

      Napoleon thought he had won. And perhaps he had, he wasn't sure anymore. Illya became more playful, approachable, even affectionate over time. But he remained elusive in some fundamental way. It wasn't until he was gone that it occurred to Napoleon that Illya had never really believed that what they had was something that they could keep.

He looked at his unlit cigarette and threw it into the wastebasket, the rest of the pack followed. A sacrifice to propitiate the gods he said to himself dryly, if there are gods that watch out for fools. It was time to leave for the airport.

❖ ❖ ❖

Napoleon waited at the end of the long tunnel that disgorged the arriving passengers and nervously brushed back his hair, pulled down his cuffs, then smoothed out his coat. He put his hands in his pockets to keep from doing it again.

Against all probabilities, they had a second chance. He had always been an optimist. All he would ask was for Illya to listen, he would convince him that they could do it right this time.

❖ ❖ ❖

     Illya pulled him the last few steps onto the observation deck and Napoleon caught his breath at the sight that greeted him. A feeling of deja vu swept over him, he had almost forgotten what it was like up here.


It was 1961, and by the end of their second assignment together, it was clear to them, if not yet to everyone else, that the partnership could work, and work well. They picked an unseasonably warm and clear October day to celebrate their shared success, and Napoleon decided to show off his city by taking Illya to Rockefeller Center, to the outdoor observation deck, 70 floors above the streets.

When they reached the deck, Illya's reaction had been incredulous. He looked around, then turned to Napoleon with a wide smile. "It's a ship, how ridiculous, they made it look like the deck of a ship," he laughed and practically bounced from one side of the deck to the other, taking in the views that stretched out north, south, east and west.

Napoleon looked around, it was true. The roof deck was long and narrow, the jutting heat and air vents painted to look like smokestacks. The iron railing was more elaborate than a ship's railing perhaps, but the center of the roof had the requisite deck chairs, aligned in two neat rows, facing north and south.

Illya insisted on strolling around the whole perimeter before settling into one of those chairs, choosing to look south past the Empire State Building, towards the massed buildings of Wall Street and beyond them, the harbor. "I feel like I'm sitting on the deck of the Titanic" he announced, mischief in his eyes.

Napoleon sat down on the wide wooden arm of the chair, his hip bumping Illya's shoulder. "The Titanic?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

Illya rapped his knuckles on the other arm of the chair. "Ringside seats as we watch Capitalism founder in its own excesses and sink without a trace," he said, shooting a sideways glance at Napoleon, a look that his partner would become familiar with over the years.

"You call this foundering?" Napoleon gestured expansively around him as they watched the towers of Manhattan turning into spires of light while the sky darkened around them, the buildings' glow erasing all but the brightest stars.

Illya leaned back with his eyes closed and started to recite:

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."


Napoleon found himself caught up in the sound of that unexpectedly musical baritone, the Russian accent bleeding through; he watched the clean profile, hair ruffled by the wind, the throat exposed by the tilt of the head, and had to turn away as a completely unlooked for surge of desire shot through him.


     That was the start of it for him, he thought now, the start of a flirtation that continued for years until it was something else; the start of the intensity they brought to their partnership, the start of the way they never quite managed to let go of each other.

It was cold tonight, but there was no wind. Illya sat on one of the chairs as he had years ago, Napoleon perched himself next to him and laid his arm over Illya's shoulder, pulling him closer for warmth.

Illya reached for the hand on his shoulder and covered it with his own. "I was afraid when I stepped off that plane yesterday," he said in a low voice. "Afraid that... "

"So was I, Illya," Napoleon interrupted before he could finish. "So was I."

❖ ❖ ❖

In the end it had been easy.

Illya came out of the tunnel and stood in front of him. "Napoleon," he said and everything else dropped away.

His tie was askew, the way it always was, and Napoleon reached out to straighten it, his hand shaking, needing to touch. "I could swear Illya, that's the same tie you were wearing the last time I saw you."

"They don't wear out you know, Napoleon." Illya's attempt to scowl was completely unsuccessful. His eyes were shining and he grabbed Napoleon's arms and kissed him on both cheeks, then pulled him into a bear hug. Napoleon reciprocated; he could feel Illya's heart hammering against his chest, just as Illya must have been feeling his.

The only hard thing was letting go.

With regret he delivered Illya to UNCLE first, to Mr. Waverly for a private audience. "We talked about you of course," Illya answered Napoleon's inquisitive glance with a smirk.

Greetings, briefings, more greetings and Illya running on adrenaline until he was finally able to bring him home and feed him, then watch him collapse on the bed and sleep for ten hours straight, the sleep of a man who'd had the weight of the world taken off of his shoulders.

Napoleon had watched him for a while as he slept, noted the changes in him; thinner, his skin paler than usual, the pallor of someone who was seldom outside, the hair was a darker gold, but when Napoleon touched it, it was as soft and slick as satin, the way it had always been. He made plans for them and then laughed at himself for those plans, then made more, knowing this time it would be alright.

❖ ❖ ❖

"Do you remember the first time we came up here?"

Napoleon smiled, he should have known they'd be thinking the same thing. "You quoted Shelley to me."

"I did, didn't I. But when you give me an opening like that..."

"It was before I knew you had no compunctions about taking that kind of advantage. Ruthless."

"Sometimes, perhaps. But do you remember what you told me afterwards? You said that for us it wouldn't matter which way the sand blew, we would still be partners. I always remembered that. Always." He brought Napoleon's hand to his lips and kissed the palm.

"But you didn't always believe it."

There was a long pause. "I believed you. But I didn't think it was possible. I always believed in you."

Napoleon felt desire surge through him again as it had that first time, as it had the night in Marrakesh and all the nights that followed. He pulled Illya into a kiss that said all the things they hadn't said, that began to heal the cracks in both hearts.

They heard a roar from below, the ball had dropped in Times Square and the streets were filled with the noise of horns and cheers and singing. A stream of gold and silver stars shot into the sky, rising higher and higher, the sparks dancing and mingling and then raining down again from above. Illya watched until the sparks had faded, his face alight with pleasure. Then he turned to Napoleon and the sparks were still dancing in his eyes.

"Let's go home Napoleon" he said and he smiled; and his smile was full of promises, and not innocent at all.